Boning up on civics

Four Barron High School students meet with one of their two instructor-coaches during a practice session for the Wisconsin Civics Games. From left: Halcyon Jerome, Iris Shipley, Ed Mettner, Ben Melgaard and teacher Derek Lundequam. Not shown, but present at the time, was teacher Tim Sanders.                                                                                                                                                                                     Photo by Bob Zientara

By Bob Zientara

What could say “Wisconsin” and “Civics” better than a cartoon image of Benjamin Franklin – wearing a cheese hat?

It was with those images in mind that the Wisconsin Newspaper Association created a statewide competition for high school students, designed to test their understanding and mastery of local, state and national government.

Fifty-four Wisconsin high schools will be represented by student teams at regional competitions planned at five locations across the state on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. Barron High School will send a team (sponsored by the News-Shield) to a regional at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire/Barron County.

The Barron students will compete with Glenwood City in the first round. Other participating schools are Owen-Withee, Birchwood, Medford, Northwood/Minong, Winter, Osceola, Black River Falls and Chequamegon-Park Falls.

On that same day, there are six other regionals at other locations throughout the state (see infographic).

The state finals take place Saturday, Feb. 23, at the Capitol in Madison. The champions each get a $2,000 scholarship.

In early October 2018, Barron Mayor Ron Fladten suggested the News-Shield might want to get involved in the competition.

Fladten said he thought the process might get more young people interested in the political process. He was concerned at how few people file for office in local government, and he wondered how many students know or care about how local government operates.

The Newspaper Association said that according to a 2016 survey from the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, 56 percent of Wisconsin communities had no more than one candidate for each board or council position in their most recent election. Only 5 percent of respondents said they typically had two or more candidates per seat.

Another goal is to build public awareness on how government works. According to the WNA, Unites States Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch was recently quoted as saying that 10 percent of Americans surveyed believe that the TV star Judge Judy is a member of the United States Supreme Court.

Chad Buss, Barron High School principal, put the word out to faculty and students in early October 2018, asking if there was interest in forming a Civics Games team.

The proposal was approved in November by the nine-member Barron Area School Board. Teachers Derek Lundequam and Tim Sanders agreed to coach a team that includes students Ed Mettner, Ben Melgaard, Halcyon Jerome and Iris Shipley.

Reviving a tradition

Until the 1960s, it was common for Wisconsin students to enroll in courses that encouraged them “to explore their role as citizens and discuss current issues,” Wisconsin Newspaper Association writer Julia Hunter said.

“Today, such classes are rare,” she said. “Civic education instead is typically rolled into a course about American government, and little time is devoted to exploring how students can participate in the democratic process, according to a recent survey from the National Center for Learning and Citizenship.”

Two other Wisconsin Newspaper Association representatives laid further emphasis on that theme.

“We hope the Civics Games will build on that important mission by empowering and encouraging young men and women across Wisconsin to become engaged with government on a local and statewide level,” Beth Bennett, WNA executive director, said.

Eve Galanter, of Madison, who is on the WNA Foundation board of directors, agreed.

“I want our students to feel as passionate about public service as I do,” Galanter said.

“I believe team competition will appeal to students and encourage the next generation to help restore civic and civil engagement.”

Before joining the WNA Foundation board, Galanter, served on the Madison Common Council and as former U.S. Senator Herb Kohl’s district director.

Brown bag forum

Lundequam’s Barron High School social studies classroom doubled as a lunch room Wednesday Jan. 23, 2019, as he and Sanders met with the Civics Games team for a practice quiz on how Wisconsin schools are governed. Team members included Halcyon Jerome, Iris Shipley, Ed Mettner, Ben Melgaard.

Lundequam asked the kinds of questions that might come up at the Feb. 2 regionals. Sanders, who ate lunch with one hand and held a reference book in the other, reinforced the questions and brought up other points that could make their way into the competition.

The students first worked through state-level school governance.

“What’s the job of the state superintendent (of public instruction) and how does that (state agency) hold school districts accountable?” Lundequam asked.

The answers to the former questioned varied – from making sure classes are held for 180 days to upholding academic standards.

The enforcement piece was a bit of an eye opener.

On their second try, the students figured out the answer: Money. Lundequam pointed out local districts can be penalized by state aid cuts if they don’t toe the line.

“That’s brutal,” student Halcyon Jerome said.

“Explain what a Cooperative Educational Service Agency is, and what it does,” Lundequam said.

“I re-read it and I still don’t remember,” replied student Iris Shipley.

The students recalled that Turtle Lake is the headquarters for CESA-11 (which serves Barron and other area school districts).

Ed recalled that CESA’s buy supplies (through cooperative purchasing, as Lundequam pointed out).

Sanders reminded the group that CESA’s also help teachers with “professional development” like classes in Google Classroom and other technological innovations.

For the rest of the roughly half-hour session, the group talked about local school governance, open enrollment options that let parents sign up their children in neighboring districts, charter schools, home schooling, and technical colleges (such as Wisconsin Indianhead Technical Institute).

But school governance is only the tip of the Civics Games iceberg. The WNA website also has sample questions on amending the state Constitution, what kinds of veto authority rest with the governor, how cities and villages can elect to govern themselves through “home rule,” and how someone gets appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“They gave us some general guidelines,” Lundequam said.

He pointed out that the students volunteered to spend their lunchtime in practice