Skagway students get political

Audience impressed with their preparations, delivery

In a town where six out of ten people chose not to exercise their right to vote at a recent election, one would think that a charged political debate would be the furthest thing from our local high school kids’ minds.
Not so.
On Oct. 9, Superintendent Michael Dickens moderated a debate that included juniors and seniors from Deborah Hanson’s English class and Josh Coughran’s government class.
The crowd of about 20, mostly proud parents, heard well-prepared arguments from students who showed poise and maintained respect for the designated format. At this event the parents played the role of paparazzi and newsmen, with cameras flashing and videos rolling.
It was a far cry from what one might be used to. Most nationally televised debates collapse into a sandbox-wrestling match where the high profile political hopefuls lose control, ignore the rules of the debate, and become tongue-tied trying to get in the last word.
Career politicians could learn a thing or two from Skagway students. Instead of grandstanding and showboating, students showed the strength of preparation and eloquence that comes from knowing your stuff. A debate, by definition, is supposed to be a structured discussion. This debate allowed for an argument on each side, a rebuttal and a final comment.
The playing field was divided into Republicans and Democrats. Representing the Republicans were Grace Blanchard, Jason O’Daniel, Savannah Ames, John McCluskey, Thomas Knorr, Crystal Ketterman, and leader Bethany Hisman. On the Democratic side were Hank Burnham, Rory Belisle, Max Jewell, Florian Wischnat, Kyle Mulvihill, and leader Garrett Henry.
The debate started on the topic of welfare, with Ketterman and Wischnat taking the side of the Republicans and Democrats respectively. Ketterman raised the point in her answer: “It is not the role of government to pay for someone who only wants to sit around and eat chips all day.”
Wischnat gestured sharply in his response: “Welfare is not for people who ‘eat chips all day’ but for the needy.” He cited examples of single mothers and the disabled.

From left, Hank Burnham, Grace Blanchard, and Florian Wischnatstate their cases in the City Hall debate. Photos by Andrew Cremata

In her rebuttal, Ketterman stressed that one who is capable of work should be working. In response Wischnat addressed the audience directly when he stated: “Anyone could lose their job. Welfare is for YOU.” He also pointed out that those without jobs or government assistance could turn to crime or drugs out of desperation.
In their final comments both orators seemed in agreement that the most important thing is getting people who are out of work, back to work.
O’Daniel and Henry tackled the issue of tax relief. O’Daniel started off by stating that President Bush’s tax plan should be made permanent because, for the average citizen, “more money in the pocket will stimulate the economy.”
Henry came back with the hard numbers. He said Bush’s plan would hurt the low and middle class: “Bush says we need $364 billion to cover corporate dividends. We are $500 billion in debt. When Bush’s plan ends in 2005, this will all be paid for by the little guy, not corporations.”
O’Daniel summarized by pointing out that many lower income families work for large corporations and they would benefit from the plan.
Homeland security is on everyone’s mind. Hisman and Mulvihill did an exceptional job bringing this issue into the limelight. Hisman opened by stating that homeland security needs more funding because the resources for the department are spread too thin, especially when trying to coordinate border responsibilities. Mulvihill responded with emphasis: “We do need homeland security, but why do we need the Patriot Act? Why would we sacrifice privacy for security?”
Hisman answered that the government is concerned not with idle gossip, but rather making us safe. In Mulvihill’s rebuttal he stated that we do want to be safe, but the act is unconstitutional in that it violates the fourth amendment in relation to unreasonable search and seizure.
Hisman closed by saying: “It is very reasonable for the government to ensure our security.”
Other highlights included a debate of National Defense by Knorr and Belisle, a topical debate about Alaska oil drilling by Belisle and McCluskey, and a stirring discussion about immigration by Blanchard and Burnham.
Burnham summed it up best: “This country is all about freedom.”
Coughran was pleased with his debaters.
“I can’t say enough how proud I am of these kids,” the teacher said. “They obviously worked hard and were well prepared. I was impressed.”
Parents had the same reaction. Applause was loud after the event, each rushing to their kids to give them a pat on the back.
Who won the debate?
Coughran explains: “It was difficult to score because everyone did so well, but I gave a slight edge to the Republicans. No one will be disappointed with their grade.”