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SHERIDAN — They can’t vote yet — but they will someday.
That is why it is important to get high school students thinking about how government works and how they can have a voice in legislation, especially at the city, county and state level.
That is why three of Sheridan County’s six legislators went to school Thursday. They spent time in four Sheridan High School American Government classes, led by social studies teacher Tyson Emborg, as part of a program called “Legislators in the Classroom.”
The program was started a couple years ago by Emborg to bridge the gap between his students and the often nebulous topic of government.
“It’s a way to not do the textbook version of government and show them how it works,” Emborg said. “When they see how something works and experience it working, they have a deeper understanding of it.”
Thursday, in Emborg’s second period American Government class, Rep. Kathy Coleman, R-Sheridan, and Rep. John Patton, R-Sheridan, gave brief introductions then fielded questions and conversation topics from class members. Subjects ranged from the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, to legalizing marijuana, gay marriage and whether legislators worry about voting a certain way harming their chances at re-election.
Sen. Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan, made it for the afternoon sessions.
Coleman said the subject of legalizing marijuana comes up in every “Legislators in the Classroom” session, but that she is glad students are discussing it in a logical manner. She said that in past sessions, students have asked questions about education issues, such as the Hathaway Scholarship, which she finds encouraging since those are issues that will directly affect them.
Student Nick Estes asked Coleman and Patton to better explain the Affordable Care Act — because a lot of youth his age don’t understand it, he said — and what state legislators are doing to address it. Estes also inquired if Wyoming legislators would eventually feel pressured into legalizing same-sex marriage if a majority of states did in future years.
Coleman said that using other states as a comparison to get support for a bill rarely works. However, she said that as issues gain momentum, lobbyist groups gain strength and can be quite persuasive.
“In a government class, everyone needs to be on a level playing field, so I was trying to get everyone in current event issues,” Estes said. “I wanted them to speak to us the way they would propose a bill without any kind of partisan leanings, and they did pretty well.”
Estes said he doesn’t think a lot of high school students realize how much the laws made by state legislators affect them, or will affect them, but he thinks programs like “Legislators in the Classroom” will help.
“If you get the chance to talk to a legislator, certainly take that chance,” Estes said. “As kids, none of us are voters yet, but we’re going to be voters, so we’re the people who should be educated the most about all this.”
Emborg agreed. He said the reasoning behind the program was two-fold.
“By state decree, students must study the Wyoming constitution and state government,” Emborg said. “Then there’s the practical application where students can understand the role of citizens and the need of the Legislature to be responsive to their needs. I try to advocate that they should be using their voice now.”
Emborg also noted that Sheridan has one of the best legislative delegations in the state as far as accessibility and willingness to meet with students, even though they are not voting constituents.
“It’s a phenomenal opportunity. Students often voice their own opinion as to what they think the Legislature should focus on. It’s an opportunity to be empowered and have legislators listen to them,” Emborg said.
Patton said it can be a challenge to talk about subjects that students find interesting, but that he is glad for the opportunity to engage students.
“We’re available, and we are accessible,” Patton said. “The Legislature really is their institution, not ours. I hope that we personalize the institution a little bit for them and don’t make it something distant and apart from them.”