DANIEL GRAY FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
Vermont’s state butterfly is the monarch. Massachusetts’ state children’s book is “Make Way for Ducklings.” Washington’s state vegetable is the Walla Walla sweet onion. And in Texas, the state snack is tortilla chips and salsa.
Despite last month’s defeat of a measure in New Hampshire to name the red-tailed hawk as the state raptor, the tradition of students bringing proposals for new state symbols to their elected representatives, and having those proposals enacted, is alive and well in New England and around the country.
The New Hampshire incident not only brought unwanted attention to the Granite State from HBO comedian John Oliver and national news outlets, but also put a spotlight on the work of lawmakers, their relationships to their constituents, and whether designating varieties of birds, muffins, insects, and cats as state symbols has any value.
The case in New Hampshire began like others around the country. A fourth-grade class learning about state government proposed the state recognize the red-tailed hawk as its official raptor. After much research, they formulated this rationale: Male and female red-tailed hawks participate in raising their young, state Representative Renny Cushing explained during a speech on the House floor after the bill was defeated.
“They thought that would be a really good symbol for this state,” said Cushing, a Democrat and the bill’s sponsor.
A majority of Cushing’s colleagues disagreed, and the students got a lesson in politics, when Representative Warren Groen, a Republican, used debate over the raptor bill to make an argument against abortion.
Many in New Hampshire politics objected to Groen’s approach, and tried to make amends with the students. New Hampshire’s House speaker apologized to the students “on behalf of my colleagues.” Governor Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, visited the class at Lincoln Ackerman School in Hampton Falls, while a state senator said he would take up their cause as part of an amendment to another bill.
But others asked: Are these kinds of bills worth our time?
“We did not think that the lack of a state raptor is a pressing problem,” Representative Christy Dolat Bartlett, a Democrat, wrote on her Facebook page explaining why she voted against the bill.
The Granite State has at least 19 state symbols, and at least six of them were proposed by students. But the argument that legislators have better things to do, such as work out the details of a state budget, didn’t fly with Representative Wayne Burton, a Democrat.
New Hampshire’s tradition that all bills get an airing in the Legislature is an important one that should be preserved, Burton said.
“These kids are our future,” he said. “If we inspire one of those kids to be civically engaged, it’s been worthwhile.”
But beyond the social studies lesson, is there value in the symbols themselves?
“You learn things that are interesting; it gives you pride in your state,” said Erin McCoy, whose State Symbols USA website catalogs the growing number of state symbols, from Oregon’s state crustacean, the Dungeness crab, to Delaware’s official macroinvertebrate, the stonefly, chosen because its presence indicates high water quality.
McCoy started the site in 2003 because she wanted to learn how to build websites, and was interested in conservation of natural and cultural resources, a cause that can inspire designations. She can tell you square dancing is the state dance in about two dozen states, and that the white-tailed deer is a symbol in about 11. She knows that while Iowa doesn’t have many state symbols, Massachusetts has more than 50.
In addition, there are currently seven bills to designate state symbols before the Massachusetts Legislature, including one for gingham as the official textile, “Roadrunner” as the official rock song, and Bell’s Seasoning as the official state seasoning.
State symbols started with the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, where every state was represented by a flower, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The variety of symbols has grown beyond flags, birds, and trees, to sports, rocks, soil, and beverages. The ideas for the designations come from various sources, such as individuals or organizations interested in a specific topic. But frequently, it is young students learning about their state who bring ideas to lawmakers.
For students, the benefits of experiencing government first-hand last well into adulthood, said Michelle Herczog, president of the National Council for the Social Studies, which promotes social studies education.
When students interact with government, they are more likely to be voters and engaged citizens when they become adults, and are more comfortable approaching their elected officials about problems in their communities, she said.
“We want kids to practice democracy while they’re in school, so they’re ready when they graduate,” she said. “We tell kids you may not win. That’s part of the democratic process, too.”
Herczog thinks advocating on a variety of issues, not just for a symbol designation, is helpful, whether it’s for a traffic light at a dangerous intersection or for an antismoking campaign. The process of studying an issue, reading and analyzing complex texts, writing persuasive essays with evidence, and presenting findings using public speaking skills to address real world problems are valuable lessons, she said.
For lawmakers, this kind of legislation allows them to have a positive interaction with a group outside their traditional base, and it allows them to look like they’re taking action without spending money, said Brian Frederick, who studies state politics and the legislative process and is chairman of the political science department at Bridgewater State University.
“It’s not like taking on a controversial issue with your constituents,” said Frederick.
But as New Hampshire legislators learned, it doesn’t always work out that way. Legislatures have caught negative attention for lengthy debates over state symbols, such as New York’s debate last year about yogurt, Maryland’s debate over naming a state cat — legislators designated the calico cat in 2001 — and New Hampshire’s choice between milk and cider for the state beverage. (Apple cider won in 2010.) All of these proposals were sponsored by groups of students.
Doug Scamman, former speaker of the New Hampshire House, said he remembers students advocating for different bills during his tenure.
“I don’t think it was a waste of time,” Scamman said, adding that every bill that is introduced has to have a hearing. “Certainly more valuable than some of the others I’ve seen.”
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