Civics lesson Funding woes jeopardize civic education programs

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By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

Dozens of high school students and a few of their teachers filed into Cooley Law School classrooms at the Auburn Hills, Grand Rapids, Lansing and Ann Arbor campuses in mid-November for an all-day mock trial clinic.

The event was put on by the Michigan Center for Civic Education, which conducts the MCCE's annual Michigan High School Mock Trial Tournament.

But beneath the smiles and anticipation of the students, and MCCE officials who greeted them, was a cloud of financial uncertainty.

In addition to the mock trial tournament, the MCCE puts on a number of programs geared to advancing its mission "to promote and support the development of engaged responsible citizens through law-related and civic education."

But like many companies, organizations and government agencies, money to run, fund and advance those places is in short supply because of the weakened economy, especially in Michigan. The sad truth is, many MCCE programs are in jeopardy of ending because the nonprofit agency has lost all of its federal funding.

"It's a difficult time for us right now," said Don Fulkerson, president of the MCCE Board of Directors. "So we're looking for people who believe in law-related and civic education to support us and help us in our goals. Unfortunately, we're living in a time in this country where civic and law-related education is being more and more de-emphasized."

He said educators and politicians, "with some justification," have focused their concerns on math, science and competing in a global economy.

"And those are important things," he added. "But we must maintain our emphasis also on how each citizen can understand our role in democracy and become a responsible and informed participant in our system," Fulkerson said.

With the increase of polarization of the system, apathy, and the lack of civility, Fulkerson believes, now more than ever, "we have an urgent need to renew a commitment for civic and law-related education."

"That's what we're all about, and that's what we're working for," he said.

Linda Start, the executive director of the MCCE, said the organization began in 1982 with five co-sponsors -- the State Bar of Michigan, the Michigan Department of Education, Michigan State University's College of Education, Oakland County schools, and the Michigan State Police -- and were joined by the Michigan Attorney General and the chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court.

Start said those factions realized that "civic education and educating the youth about the law was too much for just the educators or the legal profession, that everybody needed to work collaboratively."

"Over the last 30 years, we have done hundreds of programs, depending on what students and teachers need, what funding is available, and what the research says we should be offering," Start said.

And one program that has been conducted every year is the mock trial tournament.

Start has been with MCCE nearly from the beginning. She has seen funding come and go several times in the past due to economic downturns.

"We've ridden out difficulties in the past," she said. "It is by no means the end (of MCCE). But we're hoping for new supporters."

Although the mock trial tournament is not in dire financial need now -- registration fees from teams, and financial assistance from the State Bar of Michigan, the Oakland County Bar Foundation and several others keep it afloat -- Fulkerson said other programs are being suspended until funding can be found. For now, the programs being halted include "We the People," a constitutional law program; "Project Citizen," where middle school students are asked to identify and research a problem in their town or school and develop a plan to improve or correct it; and the "Civitas Program," which the MCCE partners with emerging democracies in Slovakia, the Check Republic or the Dominican Republic to develop ways to teach their young people how to become good citizens.

MCCE also has programs and clinics with teachers, and those are also being halted. Fulkerson said the MCCE lost more than $300,00 in federal funding, and along with the loss of programs, has had to let staff go.

The MCCE has been able to continue on a skeleton basis from grants, corporate, foundation, individual and organizational donations, Fulkerson said. And the MCCE has updated its website to generate interest. But funding remains "a very critical issue," he said.

"We're looking for funding from sources that share our commitment, and believe in the importance of civic and law related education so students develop an appreciation, respect and inspiration for law and government," said Fulkerson.

But on this day, the main task of MCCE officials was to conduct the mock trial clinic. Although it was being held live at Cooley's Auburn Hills campus, high school teams that were located closer to campuses in Grand Rapids, Lansing or Ann Arbor went there to view live video of the clinic.

Jeffrey May, MCCE's director of the Michigan High School Mock Trial Tournament, is a recent graduate of Cooley. The tournament pits teams of students against each other in a trial; students take on the roles of prosecutors, defense attorneys, jurors and witnesses to show them what takes place in a real court. Real judges and lawyers act as judges and advisers to the students, May said.

Each team is given a set of facts, materials and other information about a hypothetical case and must argue for a particular side. Trial strategies must be adjusted on the fly as each teams presents their own case. Regional competitions are held March 10 in Pontiac and Grand Rapids, and the top 10 teams compete in the state finals March 24 in Lansing. The state champions are eligible to compete in the National Mock Trial Championship May 10-13 in Albuquerque, N.M.

Deadline to register for the Michigan tournament is January 12. May said the mock trial clinic for students and coaches is to "provide them with the basics of how a trial works, what to expect as you go through the trial, and a basic foundational understanding how to present portions of a trial."

The all-day agenda featured real attorneys and prosecutors, as well as Cooley students who have participated in law school mock competitions presenting ideas and basic instruction in theme, theory and analysis of a case, how to present opening statements and closing arguments, handling of evidence and exhibits, courtroom do's and don'ts, and a question and answer period for teachers and team coaches, and other facets of a trial.

"The idea is to give them a foundational knowledge of what they need to practice over the next three months to get ready for this trial in March," May said.

May said about 160 students are involved in the clinic, a significant jump from last year's number, and his hope is to keep increasing the number of teams participating in the tournament, especially those from the northern section of Michigan. Part of the reason few teams from the north enter is because of inadequate advertising and resources. But still, he expects to see about 60 teams competing in this tournament, and would like to see a partnership build around Cooley, since its campuses and where regional tournaments are held is "a natural fit."

Dean John Nussbaumer of the Cooley Auburn Hills campus said his school wants to aid any endeavor that benefits civic and law-related education.

"We're hosting this training event to help MCCE continue this program, despite the funding cuts they have experienced in recent years," Nussbaumer said. "And because we believe, as they do, that we need to do more to promote and support the development of engaged responsible citizens."

"The benefit for these students is that they get to experience first-hand what lawyers do, and they learn about the important role that lawyers play in defending our freedoms and preserving our liberties," Nussbaumer said.

May agreed, saying anything that gives students an understanding of the justice system and how it works is a good thing.

"But more important than that is a team building opportunity," May said. "This is an opportunity to look at a problem, analyze it, come up with solutions and learn how to give a persuasive argument. Public speaking is involved, interaction with others, and the life skills they'll able to use for years."

All the MCCA officials said the goal is not to find more lawyers, although many do enter the legal profession, but to make better citizens.

"This is something I'm passionate about," May said.

The passion extends to teachers and students. Peter Palen, who teaches social studies for Grosse Pointe Public Schools, said the mock trial is important because it "provides an opportunity for our students to have an authentic learning experience related to the social studies curriculum."

He said the goal is not to find more lawyers but to "expose students to the skills that they need to be an effective communicator and citizen."

Ellie Cak, 15, one of his students, said she has an interest in law and this gives her a chance to "see how it works and get a feel for what it's like in the courtroom." Frank Cusumano, another student who wants to enter the legal profession, said this will give him "a better understanding on how the legal system works and prepare me because I want to go into law."

Fulkerson, Start and May all said it would be a shame if the MCCE was unable to continue its work because of a lack of funding. But Start is confident that MCCE will be able to weather this financial storm and continue with the help of others who share their mission, noting that next year will be MCCE's 30th anniversary.

"It would be a great time to be reinvented," she said. "And it's going to happen."

Anyone who wants to donate time, money or expertise in aiding the MCCE is urged to visit the website, or contact Start or Fulkerson at Info@miciviced.org.

Published: Wed, Nov 30, 2011