Law and policy competition helps students learn through real-world case

Congratulations to IU Bloomington students Dhruti Patel, Rachel Laurel, Mady Clary and Haley Erickson, winners of the inaugural SPEA Law and Public Policy Program case competition.

Actually, congratulations are due to all six teams – and all 30 students – who took part in the competition. It’s impressive that they found time to complete a detailed research and presentation project during the busiest season of the academic year, not to mention that they did it well.

Winning case competition team

Winning team members, from left, include Dhruti Patel, Rachel Laurel and Mady Clary, posing with graduate student and competition organizer Scott Zellner. Haley Erickson is missing from the photo.

The prompt for the competition was challenging. Teams were expected to inform themselves about education policy and draft an original recommendation for a state legislative leader on whether and how Indiana should implement pre-kindergarten programs.

I got to help judge the competition, and I’m here to say that judging was a challenge too. The three teams that presented to my panel of judges all brought different strengths to their work, including polished presentation skills, highly original and complex plans and great passion for the issue.

The case was written to a real-world situation: The fact that Indiana is one of a handful of states that were slow to embrace state-funded pre-kindergarten education, having finally created a pilot program in five counties to help low-income families pay the cost of high-quality pre-K.

Complicating the students’ task was the fact that Gov. Mike Pence turned down a chance at $80 million in federal grants to build the state’s pre-K infrastructure. Should the students push back against that decision and encourage the legislature to seek federal funding? Or let it stand? And if the state were to expand pre-K options, where should it turn for stable funding?

Each team prepared a one-page executive summary making its case and a PowerPoint presentation of up to 10 slides. The teams had 30 minutes to present, followed by a grilling by the judges that was supposed to last 15 minutes but typically ran long.

The day-long event ended with an awards presentation and face-to-face discussion by teams and judges in a reception at Briscoe Residence Center, home of the SPEA-affiliated Civic Leaders Center.

While the Law and Public Policy Program is part of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, students who competed came from all over the university – from SPEA, the Kelley School of Business, the School of Public Health and several departments in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Case competitions are a popular teaching tool in IU’s Kelley School of Business, but they are less often used in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Scott Breen, a student in IU’s joint J.D./MPA program with a background in case competitions, pushed the idea, and staff and students with SPEA and the Law and Public Policy Program made it happen.

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