Should Public College Be Free?

College has not only gotten expensive, but the cost becomes a burden for years. When graduating an undergraduate program, the average student leaves with over $37,000 in student loan debt. This is a $20,000 increase from 20 years ago. Over 70% of students today graduate with a significant amount of loans with an average of a $393 monthly payment.¹ What impact might this have on their lives as they start their careers?

The main cause of this student debt is the rise in tuition over the past three decades. While the average private college undergraduate tuition has climbed over $18,000, Four-year public colleges and universities now average over $10,000, tripling what they used to cost. While two-year institutions are a much lower $3660 per year, they have also doubled in price.

(Source: The College Board,

To address this issue, two Democratic Senators running for President, Sen. Bernie Sanders (VT) and Elizabeth Warren (MA) have both produced proposals that would make higher education at public colleges and universities free to those who are accepted into the schools.

Bernie Sanders calls his “The College For All Act.” The legislation would:

  • Provide $47 billion a year to states to eliminate tuition at public colleges and universities.
  • The federal government would cover 2/3 of the cost while states would be required to provide 1/3 of the total cost.
  • The Act would cut student loan interest rates from 4.32% to 2.32% by changing the loan formula. Current student loans would be allowed to be refinanced.
  • Work-Study would be expanded so more students would qualify to work and earn money at school.
  • The proposal is paid through a “Robin Hood” tax on Wall Street. This tax would be imposed at a rate of 0.5% on stock trades and a 0.1% fee on bonds.

Elizabeth Warren’s proposal starts with student loan debt elimination and then eliminates public school tuition with her “Universal Free College” program. The proposal:

  • Cancels $50,000 in student debt for households with incomes under $100,000; This debt cancellation slowly lowers until households with over $250,000 in income do not get debt relief.
  • Splits the cost of tuition with states to make public 2-year and 4-year public colleges and universities free.
  • Adds an additional $100 billion to Pell grants to cover non-tuition expenses such as room, meals and textbooks.
  • Makes additional funding available to states that make dramatic improvements in graduating low-income students and students of color
  • While debt cancellation will be a one-time cost of $640 billion, Universal Free College will cost an estimated $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Warren plans on paying for that through an “Ultra-Millionaire Tax.” This would tax households with over $50 million in wealth an extra 2% per year, and those above $1 billion an extra 3%.

While both proposals address college tuition and college debt, they do so in different ways.


Discussion Questions

  • Have students examine the Sanders and Warren proposals more closely.
    • In what areas are they specific, and in what ways might one find them vague?
    • What questions do you still have after reading these proposals?
    • Which one do you think is stronger? Why?
  • First, read the following two quotes about free tuition proposals and discuss which quote is closest to your own view? Why?
    • “Going to college shouldn’t result in a lifetime sentence of student debt, but that is exactly what is happening and it’s only getting worse. [Tuition-Free College] would release Americans from their debt sentence so they can live their lives, care for their families and have a fair shot at the American dream.”  – Randi Weingarten, President, AmericanFederation of Teachers2
    • “People go to college, and often take on loans to do so, at least in part to greatly increase their lifetime earnings. It is unfair that they should not have to repay the taxpayers who had no choice but to give them that money, on the terms the borrowers voluntarily agreed to. Ending tuition and fees at public colleges would also be unfair, forcing taxpayers to fund the private gain of students, especially students from more well-to-do families, who tend disproportionately to go to college,”- Neil B. McCluskey, Director, Center for Educational Freedom at the CATO Institute.3
  • What are the benefits of providing tuition-free public college education? What are some of the problems with it?
  • Would you support a Tuition Free College proposal? Why or why not?  If no, do you think anything should be done about the rising costs of tuition and mounting student debt? If so, what would you propose?



Featured Image: Jeff Stahler,
[1] Hess, Abigail. “Here’s how much the average student borrower owes when they graduate.” 18 February 2018. Retrieved 22 April 2019.
[2] Herndon, Astead W. “Elizabeth Warren’s Higher Education Plan: Cancel Student Debt and Eliminate Tuition.” 22 April 2019. The New York Times. Retrieved 22 April 2019.
[3] Ibid.



Shifting Debate over Paid Family Leave

In the midst of economic policy debates on tariffs and trading gaps, one policy debate has continued for years in many different iterations: Paid Family Leave.  This week, the Senate introduced Bill 1174 as a companion bill to the House’s 2019 Federal Employees Paid Leave Act. Both bills support 12 weeks of paid leave for federal employees in cases of births, adoptions, fostering a child as well as taking time to support sick family members or long term illness of the employee.¹ The bill, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) is not the first time that the House has tried to enter into deliberation over paid sick and parental leave for federal employees. There have been House bills introduced since 2009 with similar aims.  But this House bill does coincide with a vocal interest from the Trump administration to tackle family leave and a very high-profile interest from presidential daughter and advisor Ivanka Trump.² The House bill has bi-partisan support with 27 co-sponsoring the bill and now with the additional Senate bill, it seems that Congress is hoping the support from the President will be the push that the long-standing debate needs.

As Congress debates the leave policies for federal employees, what does this mean for other workers in the U.S.? Unlike any other industrial nation, the United States has no laws guaranteeing paid family leave. In the past few years, some states, including California and Connecticut, have enacted state laws regarding paid family leave, but currently there are no federal statutes that mandate any paid leave for new parents, employees who care for sick family members, or leave for elderly care.

A recent poll, cited by the Brooking Institution, shows that 84 percent of Americans support paid family leave. ³ Supporters span across the political spectrum from more liberal women’s rights advocates to more conservative family values groups.   There are also vocal opponents of paid family leave, who argue that paid leave will burden small business owners and impede the ability for employers to make the best decisions for their own organization and their own employees.

In 1993, the Family and Medical Leave act ensured unpaid leave and since that point, the debate over paid leave has continued in some form.  Many lawmakers, including the most recent bill’s sponsor, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, but also presidential hopeful Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and current House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer have tried unsuccessfully to introduce paid family leave legislation in the past.  Only now, when the Presidential Administration is lending more bipartisan support, does the bill have a chance of success.  Recently Ivanka Trump was quoted as saying “We are seeking to build consensus around policy that can garner enough votes to be passed into law.”₄

Time will tell if an all-encompassing paid leave law will be enacted to impact all U.S. workers, but a law that impacts federal workers is a good indication on how Congress is leaning on this issue.



  • Imagine a written policy  response to the Family Leave Act from differing organizations’ viewpoints:
    • Labor unions
    • Small Business associations
    • Doctors and healthcare workers
    • Religious leaders
    • Disability rights advocates
  • What are the main economic issues at debate?  The main societal issues?
  • Do you think that  policies are harder to debate when they include personal impact like issues of family and health?  Should Congress view the policy through a personal lens or focus only on the economic impact?
  • What is the role of the federal government in the employer/employee relationship? Should the government ensure fair treatment of employees through blanket legislation on family leave? Or does this type of legislation give government over-reach to meddle in contracts between employers and their employees?


Featured Image: Information source: U.S. Department of Labor; Bureau of Labor Statistics; Image from:
[1] Wagner, E. (2019, April 12). Senators Join In Renewed Efforts to Give Feds Paid Family Leave. Retrieved from
[2] House Democrats revive efforts to give federal employees paid family leave. (2019, March 06). Retrieved from
[3] Mathur, A., & Sawhill, I. (2018, September 09). A path forward on paid family leave. Retrieved from
[4] Salam, M. (2019, February 15). Could the U.S. Get Paid Family Leave? It’s Looking Better Than Ever. Retrieved from



Should the US designate an official language?

The United States is one of a few nations in the world to have no official language designated. While the Constitution gives no reasoning for this, many reasons have been suggested by experts. Several bills have been introduced in Congress to designate English as the national language, but none have ever been successfully passed into law. This debate is open again because a new bill has been introduced in Congress. On February 6, 2019, Rep. Steve King (R-IA), who was stripped of his committee assignments after making comments supporting white supremacy and white nationalism1, introduced HR997 English Language Unity Act of 2019. If enacted, this bill would designate English as the official national language of the United States of America. As of this writing, the number of co-sponsors is at 11 and all are from the Republican party.2 The bill was referred to the Committee on Education and Labor and the Committee on the Judiciary.


A Brief Overview of Language in the United States

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, while the most widely spoken language in the United States is English (and that is the language used for most governmental functions), over 350 different languages are spoken in homes across the nation.This number has not changed significantly since the founding of the country, when almost 300 indigenous languages were spoken in North America4, but the composition of the languages has changed. Data from the American Community Survey shows that the types of languages spoken by residents vary by region and that there is the most diversity in metropolitan cities. In fact, over 91% of the population of non-metropolitan areas in the U.S. speaks English only.5For example, in the Washington DC metro area there are at least 168 spoken languages and 26% of the metro area population speaks a language other than English at home.2One of the smaller language groups found there is the collection of Amharic language speakers (the estimate is 43,125 residents).


A Brief Background of Related Legislation

The United States has never been a one language nation, but a debate has existed since our founding about whether we should be. For example, in 1755 (prior to the American Revolution), Benjamin Franklin wrote about his growing concern that German immigrants to Pennsylvania would eventually dominate the English with their customs and language.Later, in 1780, John Adams—who had written extensively on his belief that our new nation needed a common language— wrote to Congress to request the creation of “The American Academy, for refining, improving and ascertaining the English Language8.” Throughout the late 19thand 20thcenturies, the federal government operated boarding schools in which American Indian students were punished harshly for speaking or writing in their tribe’s language.9

In 1981, Senator Samuel Hayakawa (R-CA) introduced an amendment to the constitution entitled, the English Language Amendment (ELA). This amendment would have designated English the nation’s official language. Though it did not pass, Senator Hayakawa helped found an organization to keep the movement for English as the nation’s official language alive: US English, INC., which describes itself as “the nation’s oldest and largest non-partisan citizens’ action group dedicated to preserving the unifying role of the English language in the United States.10” Several of bills have been introduced since the ELA. While a few have been able to gain approval in either the House or the Senate, none have ever passed through both chambers of Congress and, as such, have died before passing into law.

Despite the introduction of many bills, Congress has never agreed to designate English as the official language of the United States, so what is the debate over?


Some arguments made by supporters of designating English as the U.S.’s official language:

  • It promotes unity: Making the official language English “promotes unity and empowers immigrants by encouraging them to learn English, the language of opportunity in this country.”11
  • It protects English as the majority language: “English needs constitutional protection at this late date in our nation’s history because of the unique threat posed by the growing Spanish-speaking population of the United States.”12
  • It urges immigrants to assimilate more quickly to American life: “Bilingual education and multilingual [voting] ballots discourage rather than encourage assimilation, send mixed signals about what is important in American life, encourage separatism and hostility toward American ideals…”13
  • It does not violate freedom of speech because it is not required: “Because Official English legislation is a limitation on government, not private individuals, it does not violate the principle of freedom of speech.”14
  • There are too many languages to accommodate them all:There are over 350 languages spoken in the United States and we cannot create government materials for all of them.15


Some arguments made by opponents of designating English as the U.S.’s official language:

  • This legislation is not needed because English as the majority language is not under threat: While there may be a large number of people who speak languages other than English in the United States, the rate of English proficiency among foreign-born citizens is actually on the rise. The census data shows that “of those who spoke a language other than English at home, 59.7 percent also spoke English “very well.” This is a 2.6% increase from the 2007-2011 data.16
  • It is at odds with our ideals: It is a denial of the “essential ideals of tolerance and respect for diversity that underlie American democracy…and a return to racial and ethnic discrimination and the xenophobia that marked much of American history.”17
  • It is discriminatory: “H.R. 997 simply discriminates against those who have not yet learned English or those perceived not to be proficient in English, with damaging consequences for society as a whole.”18
  • It should be left up to the states: The States should have the right to choose (or not choose) an official language for themselves.
  • It is typically the home language that is lost through immigration: It is not English that is likely to die out, but the native language of immigrants as they attempt to assimilate. A pattern has been found that seems to repeat itself: the third-generation (the grandchildren of immigrants) will likely speak only English.  Their grandparents will attempt to learn English when they immigrate, their parents will be bilingual (English plus the home language), and by the third-generation the only language known is English.19
  • We should be taking an English Plus, not English Only approach:In an ever-increasing global community more language acquisition, not less, should be encouraged for U.S. residents.20


Discussion Questions

  • Do you think that the United States should designate an official national language? Why or why not? Shoud the U.S. designate multiple official languages?
  • Moving into the future, what specific impact (if any) would the designation of a national language have on the lives of everyday people? On the workings of the government? On some other area of U.S. life?
  • Do you believe that “all citizens should be able to read and understand generally the English language text of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the laws of the United States made in pursuance of the Constitution”?


Featured Image: William Thomas Cain, Getty Images (
[1] Opsahl, Robin. “Everything That’s Happened with Rep. Steve King since His New York Times Comments.”, Des Moines Register, 23 Jan. 2019,
[2] Text – H.R.997 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): English Language Unity Act of 2019. (2019, February 06). Retrieved March 21, 2019, from
[3] US Census Bureau. (2015, November 03). Census Bureau Reports at Least 350 Languages Spoken in U.S. Homes. Retrieved from
[4] Braun, David Max. “Preserving Native America’s Vanishing Languages.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 14 Dec. 2017,
[5] Rumbaut & Massey (2013). Immigration and Language Diversity in the United States. Daedalus, 142(3). Retrieved March 22, 2019, from
[6] Wagner, S. T. (1981). America’s Non-English Heritage. Society,19(1). doi:
[7] Do you speak American? (2005). Retrieved March 22, 2019, from
[8] National Archives. (2019, January 18). Founders Online: From John Adams to the President of Congress, No. 6, 5 September 1780. Retrieved March 22, 2019, from
[9] Bear, Charla. “American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many.” NPR, NPR, 12 May 2008,
[10] Our History. (2017, December 05). Retrieved March 22, 2019, from
[11] Questions and Answers about Official English. (2017, December 05). Retrieved March 22, 2019, from
[12] Leibowicz, J. (1984). The Proposed English Language Amendment: Shield or Sword?Yale Law & Policy Review,3(2). Retrieved March 22, 2019, from
[13] Leibowicz, “Shield or Sword”, 1984.
[14] Questions and Answers,, 2017.
[15] U.S. Census Bureau, “350 Languages”, 2015.
[16] U.S. Census Bureau, “350 Languages”, 2015.
[17] Leibowicz, “Shield or Sword”, 1984.
[18] ACLU Washington Legislative Office. (2012, August 2). ACLU Statement for hearing on HR 997, the English Language Unity Act of 2011. Retrieved from
[19] Do you speak American? (2005).
[20] Linguistic Society of America. (1 July 1987). Resolution: English Only.Retrieved from


Should the Federal Government Legalize Marijuana?

On Feb. 28, the day he introduced the Marijuana Justice Act, (S.597) Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) tweeted, “The failed War on Drugs has really been a war on people—disproportionately criminalizing poor people, people of color & people with mental illness. I’m reintroducing the #MarijuanaJustice Act to begin reversing our failed federal drug policies.”

The views expressed by Sen. Booker illustrate a growing movement to take Marijuana off the federal government’s list of dangerous drugs. From being a target during the War on Drugs, to full legalization of weed in several states, policy approaches to marijuana sales, possession and use have changed radically over the past decade. Despite many strong opponents of decriminalizing marijuana in any form, access for medical purposes up to full legalization has been gaining momentum in the states.

Should the Federal Government legalize Marijuana? As of now:

  • Marijuana is legal in 10 states plus Washington, DC
  • Thirty-two states, plus DC, allow access to marijuana for medical purposes
  • Thirteen states have decriminalized – but not legalized – marijuana possession
  • About 73% of Americans support Medical Marijuana access according to a 2010 Pew Survey1

Use this map to learn about marijuana laws in your state

At the federal level there has not been a consistent view of marijuana legalization. Under former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Trump Justice Department took a hardline view of state marijuana laws, rescinding a guidance letter that basically stated that the federal government would not interfere with state marijuana laws. But the new Attorney General, William Barr, stated at his confirmation hearing and after that he would not meddle with states’ marijuana regulations.2 President Trump has indicated he would support the blanket federal legalization of weed.

Those opposed to making marijuana legal and more accessible have a number of arguments, but the two main ones are (1) Marijuana use leads to many detrimental health effects,4 and (2) Legal marijuana means the companies who are ready to take advantage of the newly legal product (“Big Marijuana”) will market the product aggressively both to those who already smoke it and those who are susceptible to advertising, leading to much greater use than under current conditions.5

However, Senator Booker and Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) want to not only decriminalize marijuana at the national level, but to mitigate what they view as the harm caused by the War on Drugs and, specifically, the incarceration of those charged with possession of marijuana. According to NORML, and organization that seeks reform of the laws that regulate marijuana, the bill would:

  1. Remove marijuana from the US Controlled Substances Act, thereby ending the federal criminalization of cannabis;
  2. Incentivize states to mitigate existing and ongoing racial disparities in state-level marijuana arrests;
  3. Expunge federal convictions specific to marijuana possession;
  4. Allow individuals currently serving time in federal prison for marijuana-related violations to petition the court for resentencing;
  5. Create a community reinvestment fund to invest in communities most impacted by the failed War on Drugs.6


Discussion Questions

  1. What have you heard about the War on Drugs? Medical marijuana? Marijuana legalization?
  2. Why do you think these issues are so complicated?
  3. What are the reasons it might be better for drug-related laws to be written at the state level? What are reasons it might be better to set such policy at the national level? At which level do you believe policy regarding marijuana should be set? Why?
  4. What are some reasons marijuana should remain illegal? What are some reasons marijuana should be decriminalized and/or legalized? Do you think marijuana should be legal? Why?
  5. What are some reasons to support the Marijuana Justice Act? What are some reasons to oppose the Marijuana Justice Act?
  6. Which parts or goals of the bill do you think are most important? Why?
  7. If you were a Member of Congress and this bill came to a vote, would you vote for it or against it? Explain your vote.


Featured Image Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
[1] Lopez, German. “Marijuana is legal for medical purposes in 32 states.” 14 November 2018. Retrieved 3/17/2018.
[2] Lopez, German “The Trump Administration’s crackdown on marijuana might end with Bill Barr.” 28 January 2019. Retrieved 3/17/2019.
[3] Halper, Evan. “Trump says he is likely to support ending blanket federal ban on marijuana.” 8 June 2018. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 3/18.19.
[4] Nemko, Marty. “Legalize Pot? You Must Be High!” 7 November 2014. Time.comRetrieved 3/18/19.
[5] Lopez, German. “The case against marijuana legalization.” 14 November 2018. Retrieved 3/17/19.
[6] “Federal: The Marijuana Justice Act.” NORML Action Network. Retrieved 3/18/19.


The End of the Draft?

Last month, a federal judge in Texas ruled that an all-male draft is unconstitutional.1Current laws demand that all males must register for Selective Service within 30 days of their 18th birthday, or face prosecution, fines and prison time. If an American male over 18 is not registered, he is not eligible for federal student aid, cannot apply for federal jobs and cannot register for federal and state jobs training programs.2

A military draft has been a constant presence in American life throughout the 20th century. During World War I, because of an increased demand for members of the armed forces, Congress passed the Selective Service Act of 1917. The draft was cancelled after Armistice in 1918. In 1940, the first peacetime draft was enacted because of increasing tension in Europe and the threat of another world war. Even after the war was over, the draft remained as the nation stayed in a constant high-alert throughout the Cold War. During the Vietnam War, the draft faced public condemnation and new scrutiny. Draft exemptions favored upper-middle class and wealthy individuals3, and African Americans were drafted at higher rates while holding fewer positions as officers.4 As the military involvement in Southeast Asia wore on, the draft became even less popular.

The draft was suspended in 1973 and the military has been all-volunteer since then. However, in 1980, registration was reinstituted to require that all 18-year-old males register for Selective Service if the federal government decides to reinstate the draft.

Since the 1960’s, the all-male draft has been a point of contention for both feminist and male rights activists. A lot of resistance to gender equality laws, including the Equal Rights Amendment, has been based on an aversion to women’s involvement in the draft. Women’s rights groups opposed the draft on the grounds that the military did not give equal opportunity to women and women were barred from many occupations in the military. Men’s rights groups countered that a federal requirement for only one sex was discriminatory to men and unconstitutional. This past year, the National Coalition for Men brought a lawsuit to the Southern District of Texas and the judge agreed with this assessment.

The federal court judge issued the ruling as a declaration, not an injunction, so the court did not make any demands or give instructions to Congress for changing the Selective Service laws. But, this court case does open up more legal avenues for the draft laws to change.

Many countries have compulsory military service, including Brazil, South Korea and Switzerland. Israel requires all citizens, male and female to service in the armed forces. Other nations have expanded their idea of service; France is considering three-month required service for 16-year-olds that could include postings in many areas of civic and governmental duty. Even South Korea, in a constant state of military readiness because of their decades long tension with North Korea, allows athletes and Olympians to be exempt from their military draft. There are federal service possibilities within the United States that already exist that could substitute for a military draft.

Discussion Questions
  1. Should the United States continue to enforce a military draft? If so, should all citizens be compelled to register?
  2. Given that the draft has not been used since the Vietnam conflict, do you think it is still needed? Why or why not?
  3. What other forms of national public service are available for citizens? (Examples: AmeriCorps volunteers, Peace Corps, volunteer fire fighters, etc.)
  4. Should some amount of national service be mandatory? If so, how long, and what kinds of service would be included?

Interested in extending the discussion? Our CivX Now coalition partners at the National Constitution Center created this resource to help students deliberate about the idea of mandatory national service.


Featured Image: Library of Congress
[1] Quackenbush, C. (2019, February 25). Federal Judge Rules All-Male Military Draft Unconstitutional. Retrieved from
[2] Registration. (n.d.). Retrieved from
[3] Rutenburg, A. (2019, January 2). What Trump’s Draft Deferments Reveal. Retrieved from
[4] Rothman, L. (2017, May 22). 50 Years Ago This Week: Vietnam and the Black Soldier. Retrieved from


Who counts in America?

Every ten years, the federal government conducts a census to count people residing in the United States. The information gathered helps the federal, state, and local governments plan and create public policy, identifies regional and national trends, and, most importantly, is used in apportioning seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. As the U.S. population grows, some states grow more rapidly than others, and those states may gain representation in Congress.

The census provides a useful way for teachers to engage students in conversations about the purposes of government, and about questions in U.S. democracy.

In this post, we will offer some resources and questions for teachers to help students understand discussions around the census.


Topic: The Census and Race

The census does more than counts who lives in the United States, it also sorts people into categories. These categories have shifted over time. Use this article from to help students explore the ways in which the census has addressed race over time: 220 years of census data proves race is a social construct

Discussion Questions:

  1. How were some people and groups misrepresented in past censuses?
  2. Do you think there are any groups that might be misrepresented today? Why or why not?
  3. Should the federal government collect racial/ethnic group data? Why or why not?
  4. Why do the labels we use matter?


Topic: Census and LGBTQ Americans

The census has never counted LGBTQ individuals, meaning that there is little reliable data on the size of this population in the U.S. LGBTQ rights advocates have long sought representation through the Census, and an early draft of the 2020 Census included a question about sexual orientation. However, it was removed with little explanation in March of 2017. Here is an NBC News article about the issue.F

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why might activists and members of the LGBTQ community find it so important to be counted in the census?
  2. Why might other groups oppose this?
  3. What can we learn from the history of race on the census (see previous topic) that might help us think about this debate about gender and sexuality today?


Topic: The Census and Citizenship

A key debate about the 2020 census is whether to include a question about citizenship status. Right now, the question is being challenged in court, and the Supreme Court will hear arguments about it soon. Here is an article about the Supreme Court case. Also, here is one set of arguments against including the citizenship question developed by Asian Americans Advancing Justice. And, here is a set of arguments in support of including the citizenship question in an editorial from Investors Business Daily.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the pros and cons of including the citizenship question on the Census?
  2. What seem to be the ulterior motives, if any, of those arguing for including the citizenship question? Those arguing against?
  3. Do you support inclusion of the question? Why or why not?


Topic: The Census and Representation

A key role for the Census is determining the distribution of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. To better understand why this matters, students can review this New York Times article from April 2, 1861, to see how the census of 1860 impacted the debate over slavery. Additionally, students can read this Rio Grand Guardian article about Texas’s worry about being undercounted.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why are states so concerned about being counted?
  2. Why are people worried about the citizenship question dissuading some people from doing the census?
  3. Do you think there are any issues today that could be affected by some states gaining representation (and electoral college votes) in the way that the issue of slavery was impacted in the 1860 census? If so, what issues, and why?


Featured image credit: The Wall Street Journal


State of Uncertainty: Emergency Declaration on the Border

Why declare an emergency? 

On February 15th, 2019 President Trump declared a state of emergency at the US-Mexico border in an effort to secure funding for his long-promised border wall. The move had been predicted for months as a way to avoid a government shutdown if Congress refused to allocate the funding in the annual budget.

Faced with the prospect of another shutdown only weeks after triggering the longest in history, the Trump administration again floated the emergency declaration as a solution.1Politically, it would be difficult for the President to weather another shutdown. Polls showed the majority of the American public blamed the Republican Party and specifically President Trump for the first shutdown.2 Risking another would be dangerous for the administration, particularly with more and more Democrats announcing their presidential campaigns each week.

The state of emergency provides a number of potential benefits for the Trump administration. For one, it means that the President doesn’t have to concede defeat on his campaign promise to build the wall. Additionally, it could help Trump solidify the ‘sticks-to-his-guns’ image that much of his base voters value. And ultimately, if his moves actually led to construction on the wall it would be a profound political victory in the lead up to his 2020 re-election campaign.3

What’s in a Name? 

So, a state of emergency. It certainly sounds dramatic. It seems bold if you support the President’s plans and ominous if you oppose them. But, what isit really?

First off, a President declaring a state of emergency is anything but rare. Famously, George W. Bush declared a state of emergency following the 9/11 attacks and then 11 more throughout his term. Bill Clinton declared 17 in eight years and Barack Obama declared 13.4 In fact the United States has continuously been in some form of an emergency state for over 40 years.5

States of emergency give Presidents special powers to act to resolve the crisis. The general idea is that a President can declare a state of emergency in response to some extraordinary problem be it a natural disaster, a terrorist threat, or even a labor dispute. The declaration allows the President to side-step the slow process of legislation in order to affect a solution to a problem as quickly as possible.

The tricky thing about states of emergency is that no one really knows what counts as an emergency and there’s no clear answer on what a President can or cannot do once a state of emergency exists. The determination of whether or not a President can take a certain action is left to the courts. The problem is that that usually means if a Presidential act is judged to be an overreach, the President has already done it.6 Additionally, the Supreme Court has only outright blocked two emergency declarations in history.7

While the actions taken by Presidents during states of emergency usually concern using the military to bolster relief efforts or reallocating emergency funds to help rebuild infrastructure, there are times when presidential actions have genuinely trodden on otherwise sacred rights and liberties.

Perhaps the most infamous example would be Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, made under the state of emergency declared following the attacks on Pearl Harbor. E.O. 9066 resulted in the forcible internment of thousands of American citizens who simply happened to be of Japanese descent. That power was later challenged in the Supreme Court, which originally ruled in favor of the President, and was only officially overturned last June, 67 years later.8

In Perspective

There are a number of perspectives on President’s Trump’s emergency declaration. Overall, the emergency declaration is unpopular, with 41% supporting it and 51% opposing.9 However, it is worth nothing those numbers roughly match Trump’s current approval and disapproval rating, respectively.10

Besides general support for the President, those who favor the decision believe the need for a border wall and the state of immigration genuinely constitute an emergency and dismiss the argument that the wall will be ineffectual or that the emergency declaration is an overreach.11

Those who oppose the declaration tend to oppose the President more broadly and the border wall specifically as a waste of money, an outdated tactic, and a remedy to a problem which has been on the decline for decades.12 However, many also argue that the use of an executive order violates Constitutional separation of powers.

In all the argument and debate there remains one undisputable fact: like it or loathe it, President Trump invoking a national emergency is nothing new and has been a go-to tool for Presidents for the better part of a century. But perhaps that’ the real issue here.

Discussion Questions

  1. Should Congress develop a specific set of requirements for a state of emergency and should the President be required to seek Congressional approval to declare a state of emergency?
  2. Should Congress establish a set of specific powers a President is afforded during a state of emergency? If so, what should some of those powers be? If not, why might it be important to keep those power undefined?
  3. According to the Constitution, only Congress can declare war. The United States has not officially declared war since 1941, yet has been involved in conflicts around the world ever since. Currently, the President does not need Congressional approval for a state of emergency. Assuming a requirement for Congressional approval was put in place do you think it would be effective?
  4. Wrapped up in the debate surrounding the declaration of emergency are arguments surrounding the exact powers of the President. Some argue that the modern powers of the President far exceed the intention of the Founding Fathers and the spirit of Article II of the Constitution. Others argue that the modern world is so vastly more complicated than the American of 1787 that the extra powers and privileges afforded to the Presidency are necessary for good governance. Where do you stand?


Featured Image Credit: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images; from
[1] Lind, D. (2019, January 08). Here’s the offer Trump is making to Democrats to end the shutdown. Retrieved from
[2] Mehlman-Orozco, K., Bernstein, D. S., & Glock. (2018, January 20). Whose Fault Is the Shutdown? Retrieved from
[3] Stewart, E. (2019, February 15). Why Trump thinks a national emergency will get him his border wall. Retrieved from
[4] Paul, D. (2019, January 12). Trump may declare a national emergency in the border wall battle. Here’s what that means. Retrieved from
[5] Emergencies Without End: A Primer on Federal States of Emergency. (2017, December 12). Retrieved from
[6] Goitein, E. (2019, February 15). The Alarming Scope of the President’s Emergency Powers. Retrieved from
[7] Paul, D., & Itkowitz, C. (2019, February 15). What exactly is a national emergency? Here’s what that means and what happens next. Retrieved from
[8] Vesoulis, A., & Simon, A. (2018, June 26). SCOTUS Overturns Japanese Internment Ruling. Retrieved from
[9] Shepard, S. (2019, February 20). Poll: Majority opposes Trump emergency declaration for building border wall. Retrieved from
[10] NateSilver538. (2019, February 23). How Popular Is Donald Trump? Retrieved from
[11] Crenshaw, D. (2019, January 11). Opinion | The Silly Arguments Against a Border Wall. Retrieved from
[12] Poston, D. L. (2019, January 05). Here’s why Trump’s border wall won’t work. Retrieved from


So, What Is the Green New Deal?

In the weeks since Democrats took over the House of Representatives, an idea has been gaining some momentum and media attention: A Green New Deal. According to CNN’s Zachary Wolf, the proposal will likely become a litmus test on the road to the Democratic presidential nomination.1 In this post, we’ll take a look at what is in the Green New Deal and the debates surrounding some of the proposals.

Newly elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., is the leading proponent of the Green New Deal and has cosponsored a resolution, along with Senator Ed Markey, D-Mass., to support the idea. The resolution, which is non-binding, would only express the commitment of Congress to work on the creation of Green New Deal laws and programs.2 Representative Ocasio-Cortez told NPR, “Even the solutions that we have considered big and bold are nowhere near the scale of the actual problem that climate change presents to us. … It could be part of a larger solution, but no one has actually scoped out what that larger solution would entail. And so that’s really what we’re trying to accomplish with the Green New Deal.”3

So, Just What Is in the Green New Deal?

The Green New Deal is intended to address concerns about future economic growth, climate change, and income inequality. Major elements of the plan, as described in the non-binding resolution being considered by Congress, include:4

  • “meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources”
  • “building or upgrading to energy-efficient, distributed, and ‘smart’ power grids, and working to ensure affordable access to electricity”
  • “upgrading all existing buildings in the United States and building new buildings to achieve maximal energy efficiency, water efficiency, safety, affordability, comfort, and durability, including through electrification”
  • “overhauling transportation systems in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible, including through investment in (i) zero-emission vehicle infrastructure and manufacturing; (ii) clean, affordable, and accessible public transportation; and (iii) high-speed rail”
  • “removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and reducing pollution, including by restoring natural ecosystems through proven low-tech solutions that increase soil carbon storage, such as preservation and afforestation”
  • “working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to eliminate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible”
  • “guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States”
  • “strengthening and enforcing labor, workplace health and safety, anti-discrimination, and wage and hour standards across all employers, industries, and sectors”
  • “providing resources, training, and high-quality education, including higher education, to all people of the United States, with a focus on frontline and vulnerable communities, so those communities may be full and equal participants in the Green New Deal mobilization”
  • “strengthening and protecting the right of all workers to organize, unionize, and collectively bargain free of coercion, intimidation, and harassment”
  • “enacting and enforcing trade rules, procurement standards, and border adjustments with strong labor and environmental protections”
  • “obtaining the free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous people for all decisions that affect indigenous people and their traditional territories, honoring all treaties and agreements with indigenous people, and protecting and enforcing the sovereignty and landrights of indigenous people”
  • “providing all people of the United States with — (i) high-quality health care; (ii) affordable, safe, and adequate housing; (iii) economic security; and (iv) access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature”

As these excerpts illustrate, the scope of the Green New Deal is sweeping and ambitious. It would impact major sectors of the economy, labor laws, trade policy, the social safety net, access to education, transportation, and the manufacturing, energy, and agriculture industries. Needless to say, there is widespread discussion and debate about the Green New Deal, and we will revisit the political aspects of the debate in a future post.

For a full background on the development of the Green New Deal, see’s Green New Deal, Explained.

Discussion Questions

  • How high a priority do you think climate change should be for policymakers? What about income and wealth inequality?
  • Which proposals in the Green New Deal do you agree with? Which do you disagree with?
  • Which proposals do you think are most important and why?
  • As a whole package, do you think that the Green New Deal is a good idea? Why or why not?


Featured Image: Saul Loeb, AFP-Getty Images; from

[1] CNN:

[2] CNBC:–heres-whats-in-it.html

[3] NPR:

[4] CNN:

ERA Won’t Go Away

“Yes Virginia, there is an ERA”

“One State to 38!”

These slogans adorned the banners and signs that ERA supporters brought to the Virginia State Capitol at the beginning of the General Assembly’s legislative session this January. ¹ ERA activists are hoping that this year’s session would include a floor vote on ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, born in 1923, passed by Congress in 1972, but has lingered in ratification limbo ever since.

The history of the ERA is long and winding. After the 19thAmendment guaranteed women’s right to vote, suffrage leaders determined that the next step was full legal and political equality.  Suffrage leader Alice Paul drafted the ERA in 1921 and it was introduced to Congress in December of 1923. Almost 50 years later, in 1972, the amendment was approved by Congress and moved into the ratification phase.  At this point, the process became more complex.  The Amendment was initially given a passage deadline of seven years.  If 38 states did not ratify by 1979, the amendment would die.  In 1978, the amendment was three states short of ratification and supporters pointed out that the deadline was written into the preambleof the amendment, not the amendment itself. This loophole allowed for an additional three years for ratification.  By this point, there was a large political backlash against the women’s rights movement and the three states never materialized. ²

What is the Equal Rights Amendment?: This overview from Washington, DC’s ABC News affiliate helps answer the question.

The ERA seemed lost to time until 1992, when a 203 year old bill outlining restrictions on Congressional pay was passed as the Twenty-Seventh Amendment. Supporters of the ERA started to build political support for the “Three-State Strategy”, claiming that if three additional states ratify the Amendment, Congress can retroactively remove the deadline on the amendment. In essence, the Twenty-Seventh Amendment gave a precedent for Congress to change or eliminate deadlines to ratification and new hope to ERA supporters. In 2017, Illinois ratified the ERA followed by Nevada in 2018.  The next state to ratify could secure the 38 states needed and bring the question of deadlines right to the feet of Congress.

Back in Virginia, the state Senate approved a floor vote on ratification but the vote was then denied by the House of Delegates Committee on Privileges and Elections.  With this denial, the Virginia General Assembly does not have a way forward to vote on the issue of ratification, and the Amendment is still one state short of passing.³

The debate over the Equal Rights Amendment has brought up a host of complicated questions that both supporters and opponents have trouble grappling with.  Among these questions: Should women be included in Selective Service? What is the court’s role in determining the presence of gender discrimination? How will this affect sex-based labor protections such as protections for pregnant workers?  Among all of these, the questions of the proper process to approve Constitutional Amendments looms the largest. The amendment seems to die, only to be resurrected by new precedents extending the procedural timeline.  Although it has been almost a century since its introduction to Congress, ERA simply won’t go away.

Discussion Questions

  1. Should a timeline be imposed on ratification of constitutional amendments? Should there be any special circumstances for a timeline?
  2. The process of passing constitutional amendments is difficult and time consuming. What is the rationale for this? What is the benefit of passing an amendment instead of federal law?
  3. James Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers, Number 43 “[The Constitution] equally enables the general and the State governments to originate the amendment of… as they may be pointed out by the experience on one side, or on the other.” There are two paths for amendments to be proposed: Passed by Congress or submitted by state conventions.  Since the founding of the nation, ALL amendments have been Congress-led instead of state-led.  Why do you think this is? If the three-state strategy is not successful, do you think a state convention would be appropriate?


Featured Image: 
[1]Geen, G., & Zernik, A. (2019, January 10). Virginia vote moves Equal Rights Amendment closer to ratification. Retrieved from
[2]Epps, G. (2019, January 20). The Equal Rights Amendment Strikes Again. Retrieved from
[3]Wilson, P. (2019, January 22). House panel rejects ERA on 4-2 vote after Va. lawmaker spars with longtime activist. Retrieved from—vote-after-va/article_45e46ed7-fc84-5e5a-a68d-4dfabdb487c3.html


The Shutdown: It’s Over!…Isn’t It?

In 1978, Kenny Rogers released “The Gambler,” a song that details the sage advice of an avid poker player. The lyrics famously contain the chorus, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” Fittingly, the song debuted less than a month after a government shutdown. Now, over 40 years later, President Trump may be wishing he’d added the song to his playlist five weeks ago.

The government shutdown has officially ended after reaching the 35-day mark, becoming the longest in American history. The Trump administration refused to fund the government without at least $5.7 billion being set aside for construction of a wall on the southern border.1 After saying he would “take the mantle” for the shutdown, the president gave a televised address attempting to outline why he felt the wall was essential for border security and why shutting down the government to ensure its funding was necessary.2

During the course of those five weeks, over 800,000 federal workers missed two paychecks, accounting for over $6 billion in delayed wages.3 These workers will eventually be reimbursed, but the numerous businesses who depend on those workers to spend their earnings will not be. Furthermore, an S&P Global Ratings estimate places the total impact on the U.S. economy over the course of the shutdown as at least $6 billion, a full $300 million more than the desired wall funding.4

Worst of all for the Trump administration is that after 35 days of holding out, the shutdown ended without a single dollar allocated for the wall. The funding package passed by Congress and signed by the president is virtually identical to the package President Trump refused to approve, triggering the shutdown.5

However, it may not really be over.

As it stands, the government is funded only until February 15. Congress must pass a new funding package by then to keep the government running throughout the remainder of fiscal year 2019 (which ends on September 30). President Trump has suggested that the three-week period will give his administration and congressional Republicans time to reach a new deal with Democrats, which may include funding for the wall. Democrats have already signaled that will not be the case.6

President Trump is now left with two options. As he has already suggested, he may initiate another shutdown on February 15 if the requested $5.7 billion for wall funding is not in the new budget. Alternatively, he could declare a state of emergency on the southern border and use his powers as commander-in-chief to order the military to begin construction on the wall to the tune of $7 billion.7

President Trump and members of his administration have already promoted this second option, as a way of ending the first shutdown. Promoters suggest that not only is this the president’s right, but that it offers a way of keeping his campaign promises without bringing the government to a stand-still.8 Detractors argue that a wall is an effective solution for border security, and a majority of Americans do not want it.9

For more on public opinion and understanding of the issue, see How Americans see Illegal Immigration, the Border Wall and Political Compromise from the Pew Research Center

Furthermore, the president’s right to use the military for the wall’s construction is not certain and many have objected to the use of $7 billion in disaster relief funds, which may negatively impact ongoing relief efforts in Puerto Rico, California, and Texas.10

As the next three weeks play out, I know that I’ll be listening to “The Gambler” a least a few times.

Discussion Questions

1) Ask students to conduct a take-a-stand. On side A, “The importance of the wall made a government shutdown necessary,” and on side B, “The wall was not important enough to shut down the government.” Once students have taken their positions, hold a discussion or a brief debate so they can share their perspectives.

2) One of the core principles of the Constitution is the idea of compromise. If the president decides a policy is important, should Congress be expected to incorporate elements of it into their decision-making? Is it reasonable for Congress to reject a presidential policy outright?

3) If no funding for a border wall is allocated by February 15, should the president allow the government to shut down again? Should he declare a state of emergency to build the wall and avoid shutting down the government? Are there other options to consider?

4) Should the president be allowed to declare a state of emergency to accomplish a policy goal that Congress has already rejected? Does the president’s role as commander-in-chief and primary executor of the law give him the right to use the military to enact a security policy? Does the use of the military and the reallocation of disaster relief funding constitute an overreach of executive authority?

Featured Image: Photo by Pedro Pardo, AFP; source: The Mercury News 

[1] Vox:

[2] Washington Post:

[3] Federal News Network:

[4] Fox Business:

[5] The Atlantic:

[6] Vox:

[7] New York Times:

[8] CNN:

[9] Washington Post:

[10] Associated Press: