Byrd: School Isn't Too Cool for Constitution

Tucked away in the 2005 appropriations bill is a little-noticed rider that is aimed at compelling students to spend every Sept. 17 learning about the U.S. Constitution.

The Constitution and Citizenship Day provision was added with little fanfare into the omnibus spending bill passed by Congress last December. It is the brainchild of Sen. Robert Byrd (search), considered by many of his peers to be the Senate's most learned student of the nation's founding documents.

"One will not protect what one does not value. And one cannot value what one does not understand," Byrd, D-W.Va., said when he introduced the provision, explaining that if students understood the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, they would do more to protect and defend them.

"Through our schools, we can help to ensure that each new generation of Americans understands what is at stake," Byrd said.

Starting this fall, Byrd's provision will require all schools that receive federal assistance — that includes most public institutions and many private ones, too — to offer a "Constitution Day" program commemorating the signing of the U.S. Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787.

The measure also requires that all new federal government employees receive educational materials on the Constitution at the time of hiring. All federal workers will also be offered some form of program each Sept. 17.

"It's just common sense that on the day the document was ratified we spend a little time thinking about what it is and what it means and how it affects our everyday lives," said Tom Gavin, Byrd's spokesman, who added that the legislation was left purposefully open so that schools could create their own programs.

Supporters of Byrd's amendment point to a 2004 University of Connecticut survey to highlight the need for the yearly reminder. The survey of more than 100,000 students found that one in three high school students thinks the First Amendment goes "too far" in guaranteeing free speech to all Americans. It also found that only half said they thought newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval.

In addition, three in four students surveyed wrongly believed that flag burning is illegal and about half wrongly thought the government has the right to restrict indecent material legally posted on the Internet.

Martha Bouyer, a social studies supervisor for Jefferson County schools in Birmingham, Ala., said she supports the new requirements, although she has been teaching the Constitution in her classroom for years.

"We need to know more about our government and Constitution and how it functions. It's like what we don't know will come back to haunt us," Bouyer said. "We're trying to focus on it, but we can easily do more. I think it will restore a sense of patriotism."

Al Frascella, spokesman for the National Council for the Social Studies, said teaching the Constitution as well as civics and social studies courses has been on the decline for decades. Nonetheless, he doesn't know how effective Constitution Day will be.

"Sen. Byrd has good intentions, but he's only setting aside one day, and that means you're taking a day out of the regular curriculum," said Frascella, who praised Byrd for his past support for social studies funding. "Unless you are making it meaningful to the person listening, you are going to be wasting a lot of time."

Other education experts said they agree that teaching the Constitution is essential, but recognize that not everyone wants the federal government dictating local school districts' curricula.

"This is a really friendly-sounding goal but I would be opposed absolutely and completely on the grounds of federalism," said Mike Krempasky, a conservative activist and a founder of the Web log

"[When] you have someone of higher authority telling you what to do, there is general resistance," said Daniel Gregg, a social studies coordinator for the Connecticut Department of Education. However, "this is not the kind of thing that people are going to get upset about because of the nature of what it is."

Gregg pointed out that Connecticut may be ahead of the federal law since it is the "Constitution State."

"It's the law, but at the same time, it's not something that schools in Connecticut would find inconsistent with the curriculum of our state. We already do this," he said.

John Phillips, superintendent of the Muscogee County school district in Columbus, Ga., concurred.

"People may say that it might be a local decision, but this is America, particularly in times of terrorism and breaches of security and freedom being jeopardized. ... We think this is vitally important," he said.

Charles Haynes, education director for the First Amendment Center, which is part of the Newseum in Washington, D.C., said more than a day is needed to teach the principles behind the nation's foundation.

"I think sometimes political leaders and some schools use a quick fix," Haynes said. "They really need to look at the real problem, which is a lack of understanding of our Constitution."

But Richard Stengel, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, said Byrd's idea "is great."

"It's a Band-aid, but I think what Byrd was thinking was, you have to start somewhere, and one day is better than zero days a year," he said.

Gavin said the legislation does not dictate any particular curriculum, nor does it detail any enforcement guidelines or penalties if schools don't comply, he said.

Frascella said reaction has been mixed to the new law. "I talk to teachers all over the nation and there are those who say it's the law and they will do it." Others, who are overwhelmed with other responsibilities like improving test scores, know no enforcement mechanism exists. "They say … it's not going to impact me, so I'm not going to do it," he said.

Marshall Manson, spokesman for the Center for Individual Freedom in Virginia, said the lack of an imposed curriculum or enforcement makes the legislation largely benign.

"I think that's why it passes the reasonable test," he said. "It shouldn't give anyone a headache."

Manson added that he is heartened by the bill's motivations.

"It's really unfortunate that teaching the Constitution has become passé in our public schools," Manson said. "Certainly, anything that can get the Constitution back into America's schools is a step in the right direction."