Last weekend, over 200 Texas high schoolers joined at the Capitol for the Junior Statesman of America's Texas Fall State, titled “Crafting a More Perfect Union: A Nation in Transition”. They debated in our Legislature's committee rooms over issues like the Buffett Rule, capital punishment, NAFTA, third party candidates, and income inequality. JSA is a debate league already well-established in the northeast but only starting to make its roots in Texas. In addition to organizing debates, JSA also brings in guest speakers: on Sunday, students had the benefit of hearing from former Texas Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch and Judge Celeste Villareal about civic life.
JSA isn't what most people think of when they think of high school debate. Debates take place in rooms with lots of seating, and there are regularly over fifty students watching any one debate. There is a “pro” and “con” speaker, as expected, but between their speeches, the audience is invited to participate in “Thought Talk” about the topic. Students can come up to the microphone and give their view on the topic, which allows for a wide variety of considerations to be laid out on the table. There is no judge determining the outcome of the debate. Instead, the resolution is put to a vote.
Though I was quite displeased with the vote against the Buffett Rule at one debate I attended, this is a very useful format for students wanting to dip their toe into civic dialogue. The lack of a judge frees up points of contention and gives students insight into which arguments “sell” to audiences. I learned from the Buffett Rule debate that letting charges of “tax punishment” go without a reply of “tax fairness” and an explanation of Clinton-era tax rates leading to economic success leaves the debate on an inefficiently philosophical level.
I talked to Hywel Soney from Plano Senior High School, the official speaker in favor of the Buffett Rule, about the debate. Though he admitted that his side had an overall lack of rhetorical efficiency, he furthered his points with an impressive litany of reasons to support the Buffett Rule. He said that JSA is a very good entry way for students, both those in other debate leagues and those uninvolved, to “consider the issues and start taking a stand.” Soney said JSA is “actively growing” and will benefit from the Internet-boosted proliferation of political knowledge. “It's important to know about the issues before our country and discuss them, and JSA is very good at harnessing them. That's why I think JSA will continue growing,” he said.
Enabling civic engagement – very important in Texas.