What These Student Debaters Learned From the 2020 Democratic Debates

Since its inception in 2015, the camp has exploded from just 32 students to hundreds. The league has grown from a handful of schools to nearly 50, all of them public schools in Washington and nearby Prince George’s County, Md.

About 30 cities, including Baltimore, New York and Chicago, have urban debate leagues. (Detroit’s urban debate camp starts this week.) The leagues aim to bring debate to disadvantaged populations. The Washington league, which hosts tournaments during the school year, lowers barriers to participation, providing coaching resources and transportation to competitions. The camp, which is free, serves every attendee daily breakfast and lunch.

“We will never make the kids pay anything,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, whose foundation funds the camp. In 2015, Mr. Ornstein and his wife, Judy, started the foundation in memory of their son, Matthew, a former policy debate champion who died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. The camp bears his name. Including facilities costs, payment for staff members and food, this year’s price tag approached $100,000, Mr. Ornstein said.

Being in Washington also has its advantages: Volunteer judges have included Capitol Hill staff members, a Secret Service agent and other government employees. On Friday, at the close of a campwide tournament, Mr. Ornstein read from letters addressed to the students from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. (High school debate “set me up for success in college, law school, in advocacy and law practice, politics, public service, and, of course, winning arguments with my husband!” Mrs. Clinton wrote.)

For some campers, studying the presidential contests made debate more relatable. “It’s cool to see that debating can be a real-life skill. It can persuade a lot of people,” said Shabad Singh, 12, who played Ms. Harris in her lab on Thursday.

Others find value defending multiple perspectives and watching the candidates present competing ideas. “It’s good to see your opinions played out on a larger scale,” said Paola Almendarez, 15. “Because some people, and I would include myself in this, are so locked into what they think is right.”