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Students to debate 'fiscal cliff,' offer lesson in compromise

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If Congress needs help next month deciding whether to make spending cuts or raise the debt ceiling, a group of local high school students will have at least one potential solution for them.

A group of about 15 students from Whiteland Community High School spent their winter break researching taxes, foreign policy and entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicaid. Next week when school is back in session the students, who are a part of the high school’s first politics club, will present what they’ve learned about the cost of Social Security and government-run health insurance, where cuts can be made and where additional funding can come from.

Then members will debate the best way to raise taxes or cut spending on government programs and vote on a long-term solution to balance the national budget. A plan that receives a majority vote from the students then will be sent to members of Indiana’s congressional delegation, history teacher and club sponsor Justin Brownfield said.

“It’s the idea that compromise can be done, even in a high school in the middle of Indiana,” he said.


What: Whiteland Community High School politics club, about 15 students who meet outside class to discuss political issues

Whom it’s open to: Students with an interest in politics

Ongoing goal: To get more students from Whiteland interested in politics through student debates or aiding with campaigns.

Current project: Club members spent winter break researching possible solutions to the “fiscal cliff.”When school resumes next week they’ll debate and vote on a long-term solution. They’ll then send what they’ve come up with to Hoosiers in Congress.

The politics club was founded to give Whiteland’s students more opportunities to discuss politics outside class. The goal of the club is to provide more students chances to debate and to encourage them to find ways to participate in campaigns, Brownfield said.

The idea for the club’s project came as Brownfield and his students were following the presidential election. After the second presidential debate, the students, who include independents, Republicans and Democrats, started talking more about the Jan. 1 deadline when spending cuts and tax hikes automatically took effect — otherwise known as the fiscal cliff.

Brownfield initially came up with the idea of challenging the students to come up with a balanced national budget. But after hearing them talk, he asked them to find a solution to the fiscal cliff.

“They decided they didn’t want to just sit around and talk politics. They wanted to do something about it,” he said.

Before winter break the students discussed and debated whether it was necessary to raise taxes and if any government programs can be cut. Nearly everyone agreed that taxes should be raised, but similar to Congress they couldn’t agree on the amount: some wanted taxes to increase for households making more than $250,000 per year, others for households making more than $450,000 per year, Brownfield said.

The students also were concerned about programs such as Social Security. Club members want to find a way to preserve the program for today’s seniors, but they also know the current rate of spending will wipe out funding by the time they’re ready to retire, Brownfield said.

Before the club left for break Brownfield broke the students into groups of three and assigned them topics such as taxes, Social Security reform, health care and foreign policy to research during the break. He wanted them to become experts in their assigned areas, and he regularly emailed them during break to make sure they were keeping up with their research and to answer any questions they had.

Junior Nicolé Gaviola, one of the club’s student founders, researched some of each topic over break but was especially interested in the sales tax. He’d like to see the federal government require more consistency, so the sales tax doesn’t vary from state to state, he said.

As he spoke with other students, Gaviola started to see other debates topics arising. One member, for example, believes the U.S. is spending too much on the military and plans to advocate spending cuts in that area.

“There are many varied opinions, from conservative to liberal, throughout the club,” he said.

During winter break, Brownfield also received multiple messages from students who were watching this week’s fiscal cliff coverage and who wanted to know what would happen if Congress couldn’t reach any agreements over spending and taxes.

Gaviola, an independent, said he was following the fiscal cliff debate because he’s concerned about what kinds of taxes he and his younger siblings will have to pay as adults and about how that money will be spent.

When the students return next week and the club reconvenes, the students in each group will present all of the benefits and consequences that come with raising taxes and cutting spending to various programs. Gaviola will moderate as the students create and vote on a plan to balance the budget.

“They’re trying to pull out areas to where they can make things more balanced and make sense in terms of not overspending, making (programs) that are there available for everybody, including them once they reach retirement age,” Brownfield said.

He said he hopes the students can agree on a plan within the next month. That will give them time to send what they’ve decided on to representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate before debate over the budget resumes again in February.

Brownfield expects that debate over taxes and spending will get even more contentious. But Gaviola hopes that members of Congress who receive the plan will see that compromise is possible.

“Hopefully, they will see that high school students can actually make a compromise,” he said.

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