Public school pupils across the country got a civics lesson, whether they liked it or not, on Sept. 16 when federally-funded schools celebrated Constitution Day for the first time.
Attached to a spending bill signed into law last year by President Bush, every school receiving federal education dollars must mark each anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution, Sept. 17, 1787, with mandatory instruction on government and the Constitution.
Because it fell on a Saturday, schools were given the option of observing the day on Friday or Monday.
"The requirements (of Constitution Day) are not very specific," said Paul Harris, associate professor of political science at Augusta State University.
He said the law could be satisfied by reading the preamble to the Constitution or other observances of the document or the historical period it was created.
At Lakeside High School, 10th-grade students reviewed the preamble and concepts of the Constitution, said Bill Richey, the school's social studies department head. Teachers tried to connect the mandated curriculum into the context of current events such as Hurricane Katrina, he said.
One teacher's classes drew political cartoons about the framing government document.
Overall, Richey said, the day was beneficial to students.
"All too often we teach the Constitution as just a document in a history book and the kids forget all about it," he said.
Lakeside Middle School students read the preamble over the school intercom, and eighth-grade Georgia government classes researched the Constitution online.
"This is the first year we have honored it," said Felicia Dumas, Lakeside Middle School principal. "As time goes on, you find out different ways you can incorporate it into what you are already doing, instead of setting aside a day when it is all you discuss."
But because the Constitution does not specifically empower the federal government to mandate public education, some might question if Constitution Day is actually unconstitutional.
"As a former social studies teacher that would be an excellent discussion to have, especially at the high school or college level," said Carolyn Fries, the principal at Grovetown Middle School, whose school celebrated Constitution Day on Monday because of testing.
According to the 10th Amendment to the Constitution, all powers not specifically granted the federal government are reserved to the states, further raising the question if the federal government can even pass such laws as a Constitution Day.
"That's a very good question," Harris said. "The answer is that if a state government or local government is receiving federal government funds, the federal government can require those state governments and local governments to follow their mandates."
As with the No Child Left Behind Act, if schools do not wish to participate, the federal government is within its rights to withhold funding, the political science professor said.
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