Inside the Capitol

Monday, September 14, 2009

9-16 Do You Know About Constitution Day?

Syndicated Columnist

SANTA FE -- Tomorrow, September 17, is Constitution Day. How many of you knew that? Two years ago, a survey of 5,500 high school students revealed that 51 percent had ever heard of Constitution Day.
The vice-president of the foundation that commissioned the survey announced his worry that an entire generation may lack a solid understanding of the document that governs America's democracy.
Again I'll ask, "Did you know that tomorrow is Constitution Day?" My guess is you didn't. But don't feel too badly about that.
Constitution Day was created only five years ago when Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, tacked on an amendment to the Omnibus spending bill late in 2004.
What did a spending bill have to do with Constitution Day? Byrd's amendment required any educational institution receiving any kind of federal money to teach about the Constitution on Sept. 17.
So in 2005 and 2006, those students in the survey might have had some instruction about the Constitution. But maybe they didn't. Schools are given leeway in how they observe Constitution Day. They have to do something but it might not reach all students every year.
Elementary schools normally teach American history in the fifth grade. Or at least they've been doing it ever since I was in fifth grade over 60 years ago. American history textbooks are written for a fifth grade reading level so there's not much choice.
High school students are required to take American history. Other teachers are not required to teach about the constitution. Some schools have assemblies and invite an elected official to talk about the Constitution.
Before Sept. 17 was Constitution Day, it was Citizenship Day, as designated by President Harry Truman. I didn't know that. Now we can call it either or both names.
The only reason I knew about Sept. 17, 1787, being the day the U.S. Constitution was signed is that the Lions Clubs of several Western states began an effort in the late 1990s to help schools teach about the Constitution.
The problem was that publishers had discontinued printing the Constitution and Declaration of Independence in the back of American history textbooks. How could students be taught about those documents without ever seeing the words?
So private donations were collected for the printing of pocket-sized booklets with those documents in them. They were distributed free of charge to many school districts throughout the state. Usually they were given to fifth graders each year.
After noticing that some booklets were being discarded, Lions decided to begin asking public officials to go to the schools to speak on the day the booklets were distributed.
Lt. Gov. Walter Bradley, a member of the Clovis Lions Club, led that effort in New Mexico. Students had an additional reason to respect their booklets. I think Walter even autographed some copies.
This year, Attorney General Gary King is leading the effort on Constitution Day. He has put out news releases and will speak to fifth grade classes in Albuquerque.
The Sept. 17 date has proved to be somewhat of a problem in many schools. It falls too soon after school has started, so is subject to too many distractions.
For that reason, Lions decided to change their date to March 16, birthday of James Madison, often called the father of the Constitution. March seems to be a time of fewer distractions and the point when textbooks get around to the American Revolution.
By 2000, Liberty Day grew to a nationwide effort and March 16 was recognized by Congress as Liberty day.
It never occurred to the Lions to ask Congress to mandate the study of the Constitution on March 16 but with Sen. Byrd doing it, the Liberty Day organization is providing materials to school districts requesting them for Sept. 17.
I have observed fifth graders at the Post Office and the Legislature questioning adults about the Constitution. They would argue it is not their generation that lacks a solid understanding of the of the U.S. Constitution.
WED, 9-16-09

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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