Congress has ordered all federally funded schools and colleges to hold an educational program each year on or around Sept. 17 to commemorate the anniversary of the 1787 signing of the U.S. Constitution, according to a notice sent to educators yesterday.
Department of Education officials acknowledged their reluctance to dispatch the notice to chief state school officers and college and university presidents instructing them to conduct the program.
“We provided the notice consistent with the law’s requirement,” said Susan Aspey, Department of Education spokeswoman.
The congressional requirement was slipped into an omnibus appropriations bill in December by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat. Mr. Byrd prides himself as the Senate’s chief proponent of America’s historical legacy.
The five-page notice said: “Pursuant to legislation passed by Congress, educational institutions receiving federal funding are required to hold an educational program pertaining to the United States Constitution on Sept. 17 of each year.”
Neither the legislation nor the Department of Education’s notice spells out what the educational programs should be, and no federal funds were allocated for the program or its implementation.
Miss Aspey said federal laws prohibit curriculum mandates, but the Byrd mandate “doesn’t dictate to schools the content or the specifics of their Constitution Day program.”
The notice did say, however, that if Sept. 17 falls on a weekend or holiday, “Constitution Day shall be held during the preceding or following week.”
Some conservative supporters of President Bush, who say they share his patriotism and push for a better American history curriculum, criticized the provision tucked into the spending bill as Congress rushed to adjournment last year.
“Seems to be a Byrd-authored law that none of us knew about,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
He also questioned how the provision could be enforced.
“What happens to a school that doesn’t teach about the Constitution on that day?” he asked. “And how will Uncle Sam even know?”
Mr. Byrd said he was pleased the Education Department guidelines reflect his motivation for legislation “to allow students to learn more about our cherished Constitution [but] do not impose a particular view or interpretation.”
“Each school can rely on the ingenuity of its educators to determine how best to present its own program on the Constitution,” he said.
The provision brought expressions of concern from national education group leaders, who said Congress has no right to dictate what schools do on a particular day.
Dan Fuller, director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association, told the Associated Press that such dictates interrupt regular lessons on other subjects.
“Local schools cover the Constitution, and they’ve been doing it for a long time,” he said. “We don’t need the federal micromanagement. Congress has been acting more like a school board.”