TOPEKA — The 2010 Legislature isn't finished, but students from Royal Valley Middle School already have been schooled in the highs and lows of the legislative process.
The middle school students researched and wrote a bill seeking to name a portion of US-75 highway north of Topeka the James Lane Freedom Trail Memorial Highway. They watched as their bill, House Bill 2650, sailed through the Kansas House on a unanimous vote. Then they watched the bill get stymied in the Senate. Throughout, they have been learning.
"They understand the legislative process, the committees where most of the work takes place, how each bill has to go through all the hoops," said Royal Valley history teacher Nathan McAlister. "They understand it better than just about any students I've ever had."
They even understand the very untextbook-like lessons about the Legislature, such as the "gut and go" maneuver. That is what happens when lawmakers strip a bill of all its contents and fill it with something else. And that is how the Royal Valley students' House Bill 2650 recently turned into a $2.73 billion multiyear transportation program — without any mention of James Lane.
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If anyone can relate and perhaps offer a little hope for the Royal Valley students it is Jan Alderson, a teacher at Shawnee Mission South High School. This year, her former students emerged victorious as the little bluestem claimed the title of state grass. The four years that have passed since the grass legislation was first proposed have been a topsy-turvy ride always on the brink of derailing.
"Sometimes," Alderson recalled, "you didn't even know why it was blocked."
What happened to the James Lane Freedom Trail Memorial Highway is clearer. After the Lane bill emerged with a 122-0 vote from the House — where Lane's name is printed on large letters on the wall — the legislation died in the Senate, where lawmakers were concerned about the character of Lane.
"He was not exactly an upstanding citizen," said Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton.
Lane died more than 140 years ago. He was born in Indiana and was politically active there as a Democrat. He aligned himself with free-state efforts when he relocated to Kansas. His was active in the border battles during the turbulent Civil War years. He also is known for shooting and killing a neighbor over a land dispute and his election to the U.S. Senate in 1861.
"He had people who really loved him and were enraptured with him," said Bill Wagnon, a retired history professor and former Kansas State Board of Education member who has praised the students' efforts. "And he had people who deeply hated him."
McAlister said there are some myths about Lane that need to be separated from the truth. Most important, he noted, the highway would honor the underground railroad trail that carries Lane's name near their Mayetta school.
A class discussion about the underground railroad and Kansas history prompted McAlister's 12- and 13-year-old students to begin working on the bill in November. They are already regrouping to make their case again. If they succeed, they say they will raise the money to buy signs making note of the designation.
"They're ready to go," McAlister said.
Morris said he appreciates the work done by the students and feels bad it hasn't worked out — yet. He said his biggest objection was using the term "memorial" in the highway name, suggesting there might be middle ground.
"They have to understand there are some pitfalls out there, and they ran into one of them," he said.