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Mission to Mandate Teaching of Constitution Inserted Into Bill

Times Staff Writers

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), promoting his lifelong passion for the U.S. Constitution, has inserted into a massive federal spending bill a requirement that schools devote at least part of a day each year to teaching about the document.

The provision would apply to all schools, elementary through college, that receive federal aid. Education groups worry that the provision could be the opening wedge in a campaign by Washington to influence what schools teach.

Byrd carries a copy of the Constitution in his breast pocket -- over his heart -- and often waves it on the Senate floor. He lamented in a recent speech that even some of his colleagues in Congress didn’t know fully what it said. “An informed public is our best defense against tyranny,” he said.

The provision he inserted in the spending bill, which is expected to clear Congress next week, would require schools that receive federal funding to teach about the Constitution on Sept. 17 -- a day that Byrd has sought, in separate legislation, to declare a national holiday to mark the anniversary of the document’s signing in 1787. The provision also would require federal agency heads to include information about the Constitution in every new federal employee’s orientation.

The legislation took education officials in the capital by surprise. While they did not contest the importance of teaching the Constitution, many expressed concern that Congress was overstepping its authority.

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“It’s the kind of intervention from the federal level that really has no place in our system of education,” said Vincent Ferrandino, executive director of the National Assn. of Elementary School Principals. “If there is concern on the part of members of Congress that the Constitution is not being taught in our schools, I think that’s an issue that ought to be raised in other venues.”

The problem is magnified, said Dan Fuller, director of federal programs for the National School Boards Assn., by the “stringent federal requirements” of the No Child Left Behind Act.

“If the federal government starts mandating additional curriculum and additional requirements and items that take away from classroom time,” Fuller said, “it’s going to make it increasingly difficult for schools to fulfill the requests.”

Mary Kusler, senior legislative specialist for the American Assn. of School Administrators, said: “We think it’s great that Congress really wants to make sure that every child understands the Constitution. But we hope that members of Congress will remember the Constitution itself when they make policy. And the 10th Amendment clearly states that education is a state’s right.”

The Constitution requirement, first revealed by the Chronicle of Higher Education, is one of several extraneous provisions that have come to light in the weeks since Congress passed the 3,320-page bill hours after most lawmakers received copies of it. One provision that set off a furor would have allowed the chairmen and staffs of the House and Senate appropriations committees to examine individuals’ income tax returns. The Senate stripped the bill of the provision, and the House is expected to follow suit next week.

The watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense wrote congressional leaders Friday urging them to scrap the bill and start over.

“When a bill of this size is cobbled together behind closed doors by a few and rammed through at the last minute, it is a license for legislative mischief,” wrote Jill Lancelot, the group’s president.

The cost of implementing Byrd’s provision has yet to be calculated, but an aide to the senator asked, “How much cost is there in bringing kids into the auditorium and having a presentation on the Constitution?”

Byrd said on the Senate floor in September that few Americans took note of the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.

“The flag is a potent symbol of our nation, but this Constitution which I hold in my hand is the soul of the nation,” he said. “Practically everything you do is made possible by or is guaranteed or is protected by this Constitution. It is the prism through which each act of our government should be examined and judged.”


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