Student government takes on new meaning at RJA

Rep. Stacey Newman speaks to Saul Mirowitz Day School – Reform Jewish Academy students during a mock legislative session at the school. Students became members of opposing political parties, advocated for or against legislation, and voted as a legislative body. Photos: Andrew Kerman

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Twenty-two fifth graders at Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy got a hands-on experience with the legislative process last week including a visit from a special guest who makes her living in Jefferson City.

Rep. Stacey Newman spoke to the children about the functions of the Missouri General Assembly. Under the guidance of Newman, a Democrat who represents the mid-county area, the children divided into two groups, the People’s Party and the American Party, and took up a piece of legislation, voting it through a committee of five, making arguments for or against and then voting on it as a body.

Newman, who is running for election to her first full term after being chosen in a special election last year to fill the 73rd District seat, explained the process a bill goes through to become a state law but she also talked about party politics and the competing influences which legislators must manage.

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“We call it a caucus. You guys are going to meet together real quickly,” she told the children. “In a party’s platform they get together every couple of years and decide what the issues are that the majority of them agree on.”

But Newman noted that there are many factors representatives must consider when discharging their duties as lawmakers.

“Just because your party has gotten behind something, individually you still have a vote,” she said. “You don’t have to vote with your party.”

Instead, she urged the children to think carefully about their own feelings and use their own judgment in weighing the issue, their party’s position and their constituent’s feelings.

“Who do you represent?” she asked. “The majority of the voters in your district elected you but they elected you based on what you believe, what you’ve told your voters you will do.”

The event was designed by teacher Shannon Rohlman as a follow up to a visit last year by the class to see the legislature in action in the state capitol. She said it also fit well into the Judaics curriculum. Rohlman came up with the idea while studying with other educators in Israel. The theory behind it was to convince the children that their own ethi cal behavior can influence society as a whole.

“With careful planning and advice from my mentors, I came up with the idea of connecting Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] to ethical government because we never study Jewish texts in isolation,” she said. “We always want to apply it to our everyday lives.”

Rohlman said Newman’s involvement was key to the project.

“We had met her last year in Jefferson City and she was so wonderful and willing to help us in any way we needed,” she said. “So we asked her to come as a guest speaker and talk about her own personal ethics and how she relies on them to make good decisions in government.”

The debate was not on an easy topic. The issue the children took up was a bill that would allow police to check an individual’s paperwork to verify their citizenship. Modeled on a similar controversial provision in Arizona that has drawn national headlines, the measure is expected to be introduced in some form in the upcoming legislative session, Newman said. The students were given cards with their party affiliation and an argument for or against the proposal, which they presented verbally as Newman, playing the role of the chair, formally recognized each child.

The bill was ultimately defeated 15-7. Children were not required to vote with their party or according to the argument on their card and many did not. In fact, in an unplanned move, a significant number from both sides symbolically “switched parties” after the exercise walking to the other side of the sanctuary to join their new caucus.

Newman felt the children had responded well to the debate.

“This was incredible,” she said. “It just tells you that they understand the importance of the issues that we deal with as legislators and the importance of our vote.”

She said it would be interesting to find out from the children why they voted as they did and have them defend that decision.

“In real life, that’s what we should be asking our elected representatives and holding them accountable,” she said.

Levi Dyson, 10, also thought the debate was interesting. He said he learned that votes don’t have to be partisan.

“People sometimes disagree with their party and go against [its position],” he said.

Classmate Rebecca Jaffe, 10, said she felt swayed by the arguments that were made.

“I learned how people vote for a bill and how complicated it is but that it’s not extremely hard,” she said.

Newman said the day was a productive one. She also noted that there may be a larger lesson than just the one the children learned – perhaps one that would adults could learn from as well in today’s divided political environment.

“They got it,” she said. “What’s exciting is that if fifth graders get it, why doesn’t everybody else get it?”