Download this lesson plan, including handouts, as a pdf.
In this lesson plan, high school students debate our nation’s priorities by establishing their own “simulated” federal budgets. After analyzing the proposed FY 2020 discretionary budget, students will be asked to design a FY 2021 budget with a group of their peers. Through the simulation, students will learn the importance of the budgeting process and that decisions concerning how our government spends its money form the basis of most national government policy.
This lesson plan is designed for 4 to 5 class periods of 50 minutes. It can be adapted, however, to accommodate other schedules. This program can also be adapted for a school-wide event, with teachers facilitating groups of 10-15 students in their budgeting sessions.
- evaluate how money has been allocated in the FY 2020 discretionary budget.
- consider the additional needs of our nation in FY 2021.
- discuss the programs and issues that they think are important and consider how much money should be allocated to those programs.
- discuss the pros and cons of deficit spending.
- design their FY 2021 discretionary budgets.
- present their rationales for their budgets to the larger group.
National Curriculum Standards
Council for Economic Education: Standards 16, 17
Center for Civic Education: Standards I.A, III.B
MA Curriculum Frameworks: American Government – 1.2, 4.7; Economics - 4.1, 4.2, 4.6
Handouts (all included in the downloadable pdf):
- Understanding the Federal Budget
- What Role Should the Government Play in the Economy?
- Rules of the Game
- Functional Areas with Budget Details
- National Defense Spending
- Special Interest Groups Requests
- Tally Sheet
- Game Board (to be enlarged to 11” X 17”)
- 130 poker chips
1. For homework, have students read Understanding the Federal Budget and answer the reading comprehension questions.
2. Discuss the reading in class and the process of federal budgeting.
3. For homework, have students read What Role Should the Government Play in the Economy? and ask them to provide a written response to the question “What is your view of the government’s role in the economy?”
4. Discuss the reading and their responses to the question. Highlight differences between discretionary and mandatory spending. (20 minutes)
5. Provide students with the Rules of the Game handout. Discuss the rules and explain that students will only be dealing with government spending, not taxes—and only with discretionary spending, not mandatory spending. Remind students that at the end of the group budgeting, they will need to be able to explain their budgets. (What programs were they eliminating by cutting a particular functional category? What programs were they enriching by adding to a particular functional category?) (30 minutes)
Have students review the materials for homework and ask them to be prepared to discuss and create their budgets the next day.
6. Divide students into groups of 5-6. Supply each group with:
(a) a game board and poker chips
(b) Functional Areas with Budget Details handout
(c) National Defense Spending handout
(d) Special Interest Groups Requests
(e) Tally Sheet
7. Ask students to consider first how the funds were allocated for President Trump's proposed FY 2020 budget. Do they agree with his priorities? What would they like to see changed? What categories/programs are important to them?
8. Ask students to read the Special Interest Groups Requests and consider whether or not it would influence their budgeting decisions.
9. Have students reconfigure the budget to represent their own priorities. As you monitor each group’s progress, make sure they know that they will need to justify their budgeting decisions to the rest of the class. When they are finished, have them fill in the tally sheet and submit it to you.
If students need more time to budget, you can have them continue their discussions the following day.
10. Share the budgets of all the groups with the class, and have students discuss their decisions.
11. For a follow-up to the students’ budgeting, have them consider the following questions:
A. What programs did they choose to cut? Why did they choose to cut those programs over others?
1) How will the program cuts they have made affect specific groups (the elderly, students, environmentalists, people with low incomes, foreign aid recipients, etc.)?
2) Have them write a letter to the head of an organization whose funding will be cut and explain why they have cut the funding.
B. What programs did they choose to enrich? Why did they choose to enrich those programs over others?
(1) How will the programs they have enriched affect specific groups (the elderly, students, environmentalists, people with low incomes, foreign aid recipients, etc.)?
(2) Have them write a press release to be read by the president’s press secretary, describing the reasons they have enriched these programs.
C. What are the tradeoffs they foresee in diminishing some programs while protecting or enriching others? What might be some of the political “fallout” of their decisions? How might they address this “fallout”? Have students write a brief paper on these tradeoffs and respond to the potential political “fallout.”
D. Were there any arguments made by their classmates during the budgeting workshop that surprised them? Why?
Analytical Perspectives, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2020
Most of the figures used for this budget simulation program were taken from the Outlays section of the Analytical Perspectives, Table 29-1 – Budget Authority and Outlays by Function, Category and Program.
Summary Tables, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2020
Some of the figures used in the “Understanding the Federal Budget” handout were taken from the Summary Tables in President Trump’s Proposed 2020 budget (p. 110-111; Table S-4: Proposed Budget by Category).
Other Valuable URLs
Policy Basics: Introduction to the Federal Budget Process
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities provides this introduction to the laws and procedures for the Congress to create a federal budget.
The Concord Coalition
This organization describes itself as “dedicated to educating the public about the causes and consequences of federal budget deficits, the long-term challenges facing America's unsustainable entitlement programs, and how to build a sound economy for future generations.”
National Priorities Project
This organization provides analyses of federal data “so people can prioritize and influence how their tax dollars are spent.” Their website includes a summary of the federal budget process.
America's Historical Struggle with Debt and Taxes
This 10-minute video from the PBS NewsHour (2012), includes Paul Solman’s interview with Simon Johnson.
'Red Ink': Understanding Why the U.S. Has So Much Debt
This is Paul Solman’s 2012 interview with The Wall Street Journal's David Wessel about his book Red Ink, a primer to the budget. It is dated, but interesting.
Bureau of the Public Debt
This U.S. Department of the Treasury website includes a link to the most current calculation of the U.S. debt.
This government website provides maps and data that show how and where our foreign assistance dollars are spent.