On January 26, 42 Franklin seniors arrive at the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse in downtown Portland. They don’t look like your normal high schoolers, though. They wear suit jackets and ties, and while they are laughing and smiling, the nerves are apparent. It’s almost time for the six units of the Franklin High School Constitutional Law team to enter the courtroom and put their knowledge to the test, seeing their countless hours of preparation culminate in the Oregon State Constitutional Law Competition, otherwise known as the We the People competition.
The state competition sees six groups of around five or six students, known as “units,” prepare a rehearsed presentation on a specific constitutional topic to a panel of three judges. After these judges, consisting of practicing lawyers as well as professors, hear this initial presentation, they ask questions to the unit. Each member of the unit then takes turn creating an improvisational answer, using current case law as evidence to support their positions. Portia Hall, the AP Government teacher at Franklin, first took notice of the competition in 2003, and introduced the first FHS Con Law team in 2005. “I first tried [the competition] out by putting half of a regular government class in, and by 2005, I was putting it in the forecasting guide and recruiting coaches.” Hall will be retiring as the head of the Con Law program following the 2018-2019 school year, leaving behind a storied local legacy and handing over a bright future to the new head, Franklin history teacher David Marsh.
We the People is a nationwide program created by the Center for Civic Education to encourage “civic competence and responsibility” in high schools across the 50 United States. Oregon’s branch of We the People, the Classroom Law Project, has created a network of local connections and partnerships for Oregon students in both the Con Law and Mock Trial competitions. By providing mentors in the form of lawyers and other civil servants who have spent time in the courtroom, the Classroom Law Project presents students with both an authentic learning experience as well as a networking opportunity. In the past few years, though, We the People has faced its share of challenges. In 2011, the United States Congress zeroed out civic education funding, effectively cutting over $16 million in funding to the Center for Civic Education and We the People (edweek.org). While multiple civic education programs have been introduced since then, including iCivics, a learning curriculum used at Franklin, none provide financial support for a nationwide Con Law competition. This has made things more challenging at the national level, but state competitions have remained largely the same during Franklin’s 14 year history.
For Franklin, advancement to the national level has been difficult, with no state victories and only one district first place in the past 10 years. This is not due to a poor program or uninterested students; in fact, the FHS team is a top-tier squad. “The state of Oregon has the best teams in the nation, and it’s been that way for ten years,” says Hall. Other Portland schools have exhibited an unparalleled dominance in constitutional law competition. Since the 2012 We the People national competition, PPS high schools Lincoln or Grant have placed first every national competition, with the exception of 2017, in which Grant placed second. For Franklin, matching up with the titans of Constitutional law make national finals a tall order. “It can be a little bit frustrating, because if we were in any other state, we would be winning every year,” says Hall. Even Oregon State Representative Earl Blumenauer has made a point of acknowledging Portland’s success at the competition, boasting that “Portland has won more national Constitution contests than any other city in America.”
Ultimately, Franklin ended with a 4th place finish in this year’s state competition. Although they will not be heading to Washington, D.C. for the national competition, there is a feeling of accomplishment among many members. “I’m very proud of our performance,” says Jonas Boone (12), a member of the team. “I hope future teams can see us as an example of how passionate and how varied the team can be.” The team has already begun recruiting current juniors for next year’s team, and it appears there will be another large group next year, chasing a state win and trip to the capital.