WASHINGTON — The Constitution long has ensured that Congress can’t tell schools what to teach. But that’s no longer the case for at least one topic — the Constitution itself.
The Education Department outlined Tuesday how it plans to enforce a little-known provision that Congress passed in 2004: Every school and college that receives federal money must teach about the Constitution on Sept. 17, the day the document was adopted in 1787.
Schools can determine what kind of educational program they want, but they must hold one every year on the now-named “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.” And if Sept. 17 falls on a weekend or holiday, schools must schedule a program immediately before or after that date.
Historically, the federal government has avoided dictating what or when anything must be taught because those powers rest with the states under the 10th Amendment. The Education Department’s Web site even underlines that point, saying matters such as the development of curricula and the setting of course requirements fall outside federal authority.
Congressional lesson plan
But Congress stepped in when it came to the nation’s foundational document, thanks to Sen. Robert Byrd, the West Virginia Democrat who keeps a copy of the Constitution in his pocket. Byrd inserted the Constitution lesson mandate into a massive spending bill in 2004, frustrated by what he called a huge ignorance on the part of many Americans about history.
It so happened that the Education Department’s new guidelines emerged just as Byrd and the Senate, engaged in a fight over judicial filibusters, debated the Constitution’s checks and balances.
Neither the department nor Congress has required a specific curriculum or a particular interpretation of the Constitution, Byrd said in an interview Monday.
“I hope that schools will develop many different, creative ways to enable students to learn about one of our country’s most important historic documents,” he said. “The Constitution protects their freedoms and will impact all facets of their lives.”
Yet some education groups say Congress has no business dictating what schools and universities must do on a certain day.
Some decry ‘federal micromanagement’
In middle school or high school, for example, schools may have to interrupt lesson plans, said Dan Fuller, director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association.
“You may have to leap from the Civil War or Vietnam to the Constitution,” Fuller said. “Local schools cover the Constitution, and they’ve been doing it for a long time. We don’t need the federal micromanagement. Congress has been acting more like a school board.”
In higher education, “It’s the sort of thing that raises the question, ’If this, what’s next?”’ said Becky Timmons, senior director for government relations at the American Council on Education, the leading lobbying group for colleges and universities.
“If the justification is that the Constitution is so central to our democracy, couldn’t somebody else come along and say, ‘Well, I think the history of American architecture is quite important,”’ she said. “I don’t think most folks on campus perceive this to be an enormous slippery slope, but it’s never good when the government tells them what to teach.”
Timmons added, however, she was pleased that the Education Department seemed to favor an honor system of compliance rather than a “nightmarish” plan of site visits or required documentation. She said colleges would likely come up with many ways to satisfy the law, from holding a campus assembly on the Constitution to distributing information in every class.
Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey said “there are enforcement options” that may apply but said it is too early to speculate on what happens if schools don’t follow the law.
“We expect institutions to comply,” Aspey said. The department’s guidelines direct schools to Web sites for information, including the one run by the National Archives.
The federal law championed by Byrd also affects all federal agencies. They will have to train new employees about the Constitution during orientation and train all employees about the document every Sept. 17. The Office of Personnel Management is expected to post guidelines in those areas soon.
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