By Valerie Strauss and Lori Aratani
It's not often that first-graders, CIA agents, agriculture inspectors and airport security workers from coast to coast all receive a lesson on the same topic -- and on the same day -- but that is what's in store this September.
The subject is the U.S. Constitution, thanks to a new law fathered by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who is worried that so many people don't know the first thing about the country's governing document that he decided to try to make sure they do.
Tucked into a massive appropriations bill approved without fanfare late last year by Congress is the requirement that every one of the estimated 1.8 million federal employees in the executive branch receive "educational and training" materials about the charter on Constitution Day, a holiday celebrating the Sept. 17, 1787, signing that is so obscure that it, unlike Arbor Day, is left off many calendars.
That's not all: The law requires every school that receives federal funds -- including universities -- to show students a program on the Constitution, though it does not specify a particular one. The demand has proved unpopular with educators, who say that they don't like the federal government telling them what to teach and that it doesn't make the best educational sense to teach something as important as the Constitution out of context.
"We already cover the Constitution up, down and around," said August Frattali, principal of Rachel Carson Middle School in Fairfax County. But, he chuckled, "I'm going to follow the mandates. I don't want to get fired."
Mark Stout, social studies coordinator for Howard County public schools, had a similar reaction when asked whether he would create a new program for the holiday: "We already have one of those. It's called our curriculum." Still, he too will advise schools how to comply.
Byrd was not available for comment, but his spokesman, Tom Gavin, said many teachers had called the senator to thank him for creating this opportunity to teach the Constitution. The law offers some leeway if the holiday falls on a weekend, as it does this September. Some agencies and schools will be carrying it out during the week before, others the week after.
Byrd, who prides himself on being the Senate's unofficial constitutional scholar, is expected to appear today at the National Archives when representatives from various federal departments and agencies meet to celebrate the launch of the "Constitution Initiative," according to Mike Beckman, acting deputy associate director for the Center for Leadership Capacity Services in the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
Gavin said Byrd was motivated to pursue the law by long-standing concerns about the state of civic education in the country, fueled by surveys showing that many Americans have a better understanding of the intricacies of "American Idol" than they do about the foundations of their government.
According to Al Frascella, director of communications and government relations for the nonprofit National Council on the Social Studies, all but a few states require civic education as a high school graduation requirement, although the quality of the programs is uneven. He said schools across the country are approaching the new law in different ways.
"Some are taking it seriously and some aren't," he said. "The key, of course, is enforcement, and there isn't any. There is no provision to enforce it."
Spokesmen for various federal agencies said yesterday that they were not sure how the law would be implemented.
Educators have received guidance from the Department of Education about how to implement the law and have been directed to various Web sites with lessons and information about the Constitution from which they can craft programs. The law offers no money to help with the lessons.
There seems, however, to be some confusion about exactly what the law requires.
Frascella said he reads it as meaning every student in every school must participate. At American University, a private school that nevertheless receives federal funds (and where Byrd graduated from law school), Haig Mardirosian, associate dean of academic affairs, said AU will offer students the opportunity to attend a symposium at which First Amendment scholars and educators will speak, and it will be telecast to different locations on campus. In Fairfax, Alice Reilly, K-12 social studies coordinator for the county school system, said it will be up to individual educators to decide how to craft their lessons.
Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar at the Arlington-based First Amendment Center, said the exercise in education seemed an "artificial way" to teach the essential subject.
"My concern is that this will be seen as a quick fix to a deeper problem," he said. "The problem isn't that we don't celebrate the Constitution. The problem is that we don't live it enough in our schools. . . . so the message to kids is that preparing for life in a democracy is not a high priority."