On Constitution Day

A new law requires schools to observe an old holiday in the Constitution's honor. But is Constitution Day constitutional?

HOW WAS YOUR Constitution Day? Did you take time to reflect on the establishment clause of the First Amendment? The meaning of "equal protection of the law" as mentioned in the 14th? Surely, with the John Roberts hearings underway in Washington, you took the time to review the relevant language about the Senate's "advice and consent" power in Article II, Section 2.

Maybe not. But those attending public schools or working in a federal agency should have learned something about the Constitution last week. In fact, a new law requires it.

Without fanfare, Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat from West Virginia, inserted a provision into an appropriations bill last year that declared Sept. 17-the day the Constitution was signed in 1787-to be "Constitution and Citizenship Day." The law requires all schools that receive federal funding to hold a program noting the occasion. Federal agencies are required to provide educational materials to employees on that day, as well. (With Constitution Day falling on a Saturday this year, the law is being interpreted to require observance in either the week before or the week after the event, according to Byrd's office.)

The idea is not new. As early as 1916, civic groups campaigned to make Sept. 17 a national holiday. Constitution Day celebrations became ''formulaic rituals" through the 1920s, according to Michael G. Kammen's cultural history, "A Machine That Would Go of Itself." In 1923, the American Bar Association and the National Education Association proposed a Constitution Week, during which schools would set aside time each day for lessons on the Constitution. But Congress never declared an official holiday and the rituals died out.

Byrd's new approach has its critics. Roger Pilon, vice-president for legal affairs at the libertarian Cato Institute, sees the law as an example of the federal government overstepping its authority. Since the Constitution doesn't mention a congressional role in funding education, such matters should be left to the states, he says. Despite Byrd's reputation as a devoted student of the Constitution, Pilon says, ''He is using the education bill to require educational institutions across the country to teach students lessons about the Constitution. The irony is that the education bill itself is unconstitutional," Pilon says.

National civics-education groups have welcomed the boost from Byrd, with many providing lesson plans on their websites. ''We're just absolutely thrilled," says Victoria Hughes, president of the Bill of Rights Institute, a nonpartisan organization that offers seminars and course materials on the Constitution for teachers. ''It's a lovely idea," says Richard Stengel, director of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the popular new museum that opened two years ago. Stengel sees the Byrd law as part of a ''real civic renaissance" that springs from widespread concern that many citizens are uninformed about constitutional principles.

Hughes concedes that ''having a federal mandate is problematic." But in actual practice, ''It's not an enforceable mandate." What worries her more is that the law has received too little notice. ''We've been beating this drum all summer" to spread the word among educators, she says. ''The thing we find most shocking is how many haven't heard yet."

In Massachusetts, the state education commissioner sent a memo to all superintendents this summer. And the idea was quickly embraced in those schools already devoted to civics education. Sheldon Berman, superintendent of schools in Hudson, says constitutional instruction is a core part of the Hudson social studies curriculum. All Hudson schools were participating in activities for Constitution Day, he said last week, mentioning a third-grade class embarking on writing a ''class constitution" and a fifth-grade class comparing the US Constitution with those of other countries.

Roger Desrosiers, a high school history and government teacher at Millbury Memorial High School, has been teaching the Constitution for 19 years through the ''We the People" program sponsored by the California-based Center for Civic Education. ''I don't really have to do anything different," he says, ''because we're covering this every day."

Desrosiers has observed Constitution Day in previous years by having students read the entire charter. ''I got the distinct impression that by letting them read the document they could make certain connections" that they might not have made while listening to a teacher lecture, he says. He disputes the widespread notion that students don't want to analyze the sometimes mind-bending problems of constitutional interpretation. The key is to encourage them to think for themselves and debate ideas, he says. For this year's event, he was planning a discussion with his students about whether a modern-day constitutional convention would be able to agree on basic principles.

For teachers brave enough to open their classroom to controversy, Constitution Day even provides a perfect opportunity to discuss vexing questions of federalism and the enumerated powers of Congress (there are 18 listed in Article I, Section 8, including to provide for the ''general welfare"). Should we accept the interpretation of libertarians like Pilon that Congress can't pass laws affecting public schools? Does Congress have the authority to compel observance of the Constitution on Constitution Day? Discuss.

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