Five of the six Chittenden County state senators walked the halls of Milton High School last week, taking questions from juniors and seniors and offering their opinions on oft-debated political topics in a town-hall style presentation.
The appearance was part of a public speaking tour held prior to the start of the new legislative session. MHS was the only school Sens. Phil Baruth, Ginny Lyons, Michael Sirotkin, Debbie Ingram and Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe visited during the circuit, according to Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics teacher Jason Gorczyk.
“One thing that’s pretty special about Vermont is it’s hard to picture a different state where this opportunity would be available,” Gorczyk told the Milton students. “There’s no question that’s off limits.”
Many kids took Gorczyk up on that proposition, pressing their legislators on topics ranging from abortion rights to the minimum wage in small classroom settings before gathering as a cohort in the auditorium for another round of questions.
Ingram’s statement on marijuana legalization in one room was especially poignant in light of her well-publicized DUI arrest earlier this month. She later released a statement through her attorney saying she “suffer[s] from a disease” and has been getting treatment through a 12-step program.
“When I was younger, alcohol was legal at 18, and I got into that,” Ingram told students. “I wish that the legal age had been 21, actually for that, because I think I would have been more mature.”
Largely tossing the list of key topics, Baruth focused almost exclusively on college affordability, especially emphasizing early college and dual enrollment. The programs combined can significantly reduce kids’ debt burden in college, Baruth said, imploring the students in the room to look further into the opportunities.
“You have $10,000 of free education you can take,” Baruth said. “If two or three of you would go check into dual enrollment, I would consider that I did something really amazing today.”
As the senators transitioned from room to room, students chatted about sports practice and homework assignments, but occasionally broke into miniature debates on things like gun control and the opiate epidemic.
Senior Zach Popke said he didn’t know the names of any Chittenden County state senators before the exercise, let alone their political views. That’s true for many members of the public, the politicians confirmed.
Brooke Caragher, also a senior, said she was a bit more familiar after writing letters to some of the senators as part of her A.P. Government course, but certainly could not rattle off their individual stances before today.
“I like it because I’m going to be voting soon, so I like to know how they choose to make changes,” Caragher said, noting paid family leave was especially interesting to her. “I think it’s really helpful.”
Ashe, the last senator to appear before Caragher’s group, flipped the script on the students, asking “hypothetically” whether an MHS student would have any trouble purchasing a small amount of marijuana within a week or two.
The squirming students took a bit of coaxing before about two-thirds of the class sheepishly raised their hands, agreeing it would be “pretty easy” to obtain the drug.
“Don’t be embarrassed about this, because this is a question legislators are struggling with,” Ashe said. “Right now, I believe that most people in Vermont who want to get it are already getting it … It creates this little black market.”
The interactions were exactly what Gorczyk hoped for when he helped facilitate the town hall. In a recent addition to his curriculum, he also now requires A.P. Government students to write weekly letters to elected officials, further forging lines of communication.
“Vermont has a rare opportunity to do that,” Gorczyk said. “Representatives can come to high school and that’s fairly accessible for almost every part of the state.”