Open Secrets: Using the Internet to Learn about the Influence of Money in Politics

By Scheuerell, Scott K. | Social Education, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Open Secrets: Using the Internet to Learn about the Influence of Money in Politics


Scheuerell, Scott K., Social Education


With the 2008 election quickly approaching, candidates continue the scramble to fund their campaigns--collecting money from individuals, corporations, and labor unions. Students can learn a great deal about our political system by examining how politicians are financed. The vast majority of our high school students do not understand the influence of money in our political system.

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When I was a high school social studies teacher, I was always looking for ways to utilize the Internet to engage my students in civics. My students, like the vast majority of our nation's high school students, were avid users of the Internet at home. In fact, 96 percent of high school students reportedly use the Internet. (1) A typical high school student conducts research first on the Internet. (2) David Hicks et al. note that "The key to achieving powerful teaching and learning in social studies is not technology itself, but rather how technology is used as a tool to encourage the doing of social studies in the pursuit of citizenship." (3) Skeptics may wonder if they should use instructional time to allow students to work online when students could obtain information through books or magazines. The Internet enables students to be actively involved by allowing them to navigate and explore topics more deeply. Many websites contain databases of information. Consequently, students doing research are forced to think critically about the data they want to obtain by building graphs with detailed information. (4) Students are learning through the use of the computer, not from the computer. (5)

There are countless Internet sources available to a civics classroom. During my lesson planning, I found a website focused on tracking campaign contributions. Open Secrets, www.opensecrets.org, is sponsored by the Center for Responsive Politics. The nonprofit, nonpartisan D.C.-based organization aims to educate voters on the influence of money in politics and to engage citizens in creating a more responsive government. (6) Based on my experiences in the classroom, the site can be used to emphasize several key points about money in our political system.

Using the Website in the Classroom

I was fortunate to have a wireless laptop cart which enabled each of my students to have their own computer with Internet access. Before I had laptop computers, I simply used lecture to convey the influence of money in American politics. However, with Internet access, I led my students through the Open Secrets website to highlight certain aspects of the money trail in our political system. I had a LCD projector, which enabled my students to follow along on their laptop computers. Once students had the opportunity to view particular links, I engaged them in student-centered discussion on various issues related to campaign finance. (7) Since the high school I taught at was on the block schedule, with 80-minute classes, I was able to do this in one class period.

Federal Election Commission

By law, campaign contributions must be reported, and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) keeps track of these contributions. My lesson began by having my students learn more detailed information about the FEC by clicking on the "Basics" link. This segment explains the responsibilities assigned to the commission. The responsibilities include oversight of federal campaign finance law and its enforcement. In particular, the FEC is responsible for the oversight of campaign financing in presidential and congressional elections. (8) Open Secrets also has a direct link to the FEC website, www.fec.gov.

Contribution Limits

Students often wonder how much money can be given to politicians. A scroll down menu appears from the "Basics" link, where students can click on "Campaign Finance Law." Here, students can read about how much money can be contributed to a politician and how frequently contributions can be made. …

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