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Students to Observe Constitution Signing


Just about every American school teaches something about the US Constitution. What's new this year is that schools have to teach about the Constitution on the anniversary of its signing. A new government mandate requires schools and colleges that receive federal funding to provide some sort of educational program on Constitution Day. That's the date of the document's signing in 1787. The date is September 17th, which falls on a Saturday this year, so they're allowed to plan their events for today or for early next week. The story of the passage of this new requirement is itself a little civics lesson, which we'll hear this morning from NPR's Elaine Korry.

ELAINE KORRY reporting:

Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia came up with the idea, which he attached to a massive spending bill last year. It's taken some schools by surprise, but not this sixth-grade class in Daly City, south of San Francisco. Students here have been preparing all week.

THOMAS BRUSSARD(ph) (Student): We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice and share domestic tranquility...

KORRY: Eleven-year-old Thomas Brussard uses his best public speaking voice to recite the preamble to the Constitution.

BRUSSARD: ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Mr. EDWIN MURPHY (Teacher): Very good.

KORRY: Normally in September, Edwin Murphy would be teaching about ancient Rome, not the Bill of Rights. But this year, he has taken a detour to give a US civics lesson.

Mr. MURPHY: Who would like to tell us what the Constitution is?

MANUEL MARQUEZ(ph) (Student): The Constitution is about the laws and the Bill of Rights. The Constitution is the highest law in the United States.

KORRY: That's Manuel Marquez who, like many of his classmates, is an immigrant. Ed Murphy is an Air Force veteran who's seen repressive foreign governments up close. He says teaching about democracy is vital to developing good citizens, and he's glad to do it, even if this mandate disrupts his normal teaching schedule. Norman Forbert is the principal of Robertson Intermediate School. He sent teachers a memo about Constitution Day a few weeks ago, and he says most of them have taken it in stride.

Mr. NORMAN FORBERT (Principal, Robertson Intermediate School): I did have one first-grade teacher say that it was really difficult to find age-appropriate information even on the Internet sites. But the second-grade teachers actually didn't have a problem. In fact, they had a book called "We the Kids," about the preamble of the Constitution, and it's really cutely illustrated, and so it explains what it means in kids' terms.

KORRY: The curriculum may be available, but that doesn't ease the concerns of some education experts. Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, says he's a great admirer of Senator Byrd, but he still thinks this mandate is unwise.

Mr. JACK JENNINGS, (President, Center on Education Policy): The truth of the matter is that the federal government shouldn't be in the business of mandating any curriculum. It should be encouraging states and local school districts to improve schools, but to mandate a particular thing to be taught on a particular day is really an extreme.

KORRY: Jennings expects that compliance will vary widely across the nation, especially in colleges and universities which also fall under the requirement.

Mr. JENNINGS: Some schools are going to set aside an hour. Some schools are going to set aside a minute. Some universities are struggling now with what they've going to do because students are in all different courses, and some students aren't even in courses on that particular day.

KORRY: At least one university, George Washington, will be hosting a seminar on constitutional law to commemorate the signing of the US Constitution on September 17th, 1787. Elaine Korry, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elaine Korry is an NPR contributor based in San Francisco. From August 2004-June 2007 she worked as an NPR senior reporter covering social policy for NPR, with a focus on education, and on the lives of the nation's most vulnerable citizens — the homeless, those living in poverty, working in low wage positions, and trying to find their way to a more stable life.