On Jan. 11, high school students from Granbury High School and the Episcopal School of Dallas participated in mock congressional hearings at the State Capitol as part of the We the People program. Granbury High won first place for the second consecutive year and will compete in the national finals, held in Washington, D.C., in April.
The State Bar’s Law-Related Education Department organizes and implements Texas’s branch of the national We the People program by hosting teacher training workshops and organizing the end-of-semester competition for high school students, which is heralded as an effective way to encourage civics participation and critical thinking.
Throughout one semester, students from a single class study the We the People constitutional law textbook—with one to five students being assigned to each unit of the book—as part of government class and during after-school hours. In January, the team travels to Austin to participate in the mock congressional hearings. Each unit’s student representatives sit on the bench in House and Senate hearing rooms, with the judges—who are Texas lawyers, educators, and community leaders—sitting on the other side.
First, the students share their responses to a previously disclosed “canned” question on a certain aspect of constitutional law, like the purposes served by the right to amend the Constitution. Then, each judge asks the students follow-up questions that they have never heard before, such as “Do you think that some of the contemporary issues, like gay marriage and abortion, are worthy of a constitutional amendment today or should these issues remain with the states?” Judges score the students on several aspects of their performance, such as their understanding of the issue, reasoning, and use of supportive evidence. These are tallied to arrive at a winner.
“We have evidence that these kids go on to do super work at the university level and later, after they get their degrees, become lawyers, doctors,” said Jerry Perry, former government professor at Angelo State University and chair of the We the People textbook-unit 3 assessment. “They vote in much higher numbers than the average citizen does. They’re much more informed than the average citizen. There is strong evidence that it has that kind of impact on them.”
As an example of how the program can influence Texas students, Texas Tech Law School professor Julie Doss—who participated in We the People when she was in high school—served as a judge in this year’s competition.