Constitution Day teaching obligation draws criticism

Some educators resent federal requirements for local curriculum

September 16, 2005|By Sarah Abruzzese | Sarah Abruzzese,SUN STAFF

Americans know more about TV shows like Desperate Housewives than they know about the U.S. Constitution, according to Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat.

That is why he wrote a federal law into the Education Department budget. It requires students to observe the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, Sept. 17, 1787.

Tomorrow is Constitution Day - the 218th anniversary - and because it falls on a weekend, schools across the nation will either commemorate it today or next week.

In Maryland, teaching about the Constitution has been a voluntary part of school curriculum for several years, said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. He said the federal law merely mandates that it be done around the time of the Constitution's anniversary.

Byrd boasts that he keeps a copy of the document in his pocket and reads it often. In July, he met with a group of federal employees and asked how many had watched Desperate Housewives. In a show of hands, the television show thoroughly trounced the Constitution.

Byrd maintains that ignorance of the Constitution is "ultimately the worst enemy of a people who want to be free."

But two Harford County school board members have a problem with the new law.

Mark M. Wolkow said Harford County is already teaching the Constitution and that it is a bad idea for the federal government to order curricula be taught at the local level. He added that requiring something be taught on a specific day causes disruption for teachers.

"If Congress doesn't have anything better to do then they need to go home," said Robert B. Thomas Jr., a school board member and former school board president. He is "very against any mandates coming from the federal level to the state or local level that take away local authority to make those decisions."

"I firmly believe the framers of the Constitution never envisioned the degree of intrusion by the federal government to local government," Thomas said.

In a survey of 1,520 adults commissioned by the National Constitution Center in July 2002, 66 percent of respondents said they were generally familiar with the Constitution. Only 16 percent claimed detailed knowledge of it.

This lack of knowledge is a problem because we have a responsibility to educate the next generation about their rights, said Louise Leigh, the founder of Constitution Day Inc., a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that has been teaching Americans about the Constitution for nine years.

"It is a very important document," Leigh said. "We are supposed to perpetuate it to each succeeding generation." The organization hosts a yearly recitation of the document's preamble.

This year it will be recited by retired Army Gen. Tommy Franks at 2 p.m. today. Members of the military will take part overseas, making it the first international recitation of the document.

Observances in Maryland will include a scheduled speech today by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes at Goucher College. He will discuss the Senate's role of "advice and consent" as outlined by the Constitution.

Joseph F. Murphy Jr., chief judge of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, will speak Thursday to University of Maryland, College Park students about the role the court plays in interpreting the Constitution.

On Monday, the Johns Hopkins University is welcoming law professor Richard Epstein. He will discuss the issues of eminent domain.

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