Originally published April 4, 2019 in Lancaster Online.
By Alex Geli
Mahayla Meyer stood inside the state Capitol building on Thursday ready to defend a Senate bill she sponsored that would require all public school students, except student-athletes, to take physical education classes.
Then came a flurry of questions she never saw coming, despite working through an amended version of the bill in the Senate Education Committee less than two hours earlier.
What would happen at schools that struggle to afford to provide gym classes? What about gym teacher salaries and job openings?
The Warwick High School junior stood in front of her peers, chuckling nervously and anxiously adjusting her glasses at times, and answered every question thrown her way.
“I wasn’t uncomfortable,” she said. “It was just challenging in the fact that I needed to think in a way that I hadn’t thought before.”
Within minutes her bill, as amended, passed with broad support.
“I was ecstatic,” she said.
Meyer was one of about 60 students from nine Lancaster County high schools who participated in Senator for a Day. Hosted annually, except for election years, by state Sen. Ryan Aument (R-Landisville), the daylong event exposes local students to the work it takes to carry a piece of legislation through committee and eventually into law.
— Alex Geli (@alexgeli) April 4, 2019
Several state senators host a similar program. Sen. Scott Martin (R-Martic Township) hosted his Senator for a Day in March. Martin’s legislative assistant said they invited public schools in the district, as well as several local private schools.
“It’s really the highlight of my year,” Aument said.
Among the bills passed by students Thursday were Meyer’s physical education bill, legislation taxing the use of plastic bags, and a bill ending the death penalty in Pennsylvania. Three other bills – to delay public school start times, add a sales tax for digital product sales and ban children younger than 18 years old from joining social media without parental consent – did not advance from their respective committees.
“Their views aren’t being overly informed by partisanship or ideology,” Aument said. “So that’s inspiring to see how they process information, how they think through an issue, how they debate.”
During a debate on the “Senate floor” regarding the death penalty bill, students disagreed on several fronts – from the morality of the death penalty to the cost and the impact on nonwhite prisoners.
Max Mercado, a junior at Garden Spot High School, then stood up, walked to the microphone and made a motion that even Aument didn’t see coming. Mercado requested a motion to end discussion and fast-forward to a vote. His peers responded with a round of applause.
“I just thought the arguments were getting kind of redundant and I thought it was turning into a race issue, and I wanted to get away from that,” Mercado told LNP.
The motion – and, later, the bill – was passed.