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July 2005


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"A LISTSERV list for discussions pertaining to New York State history." <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 22 Jul 2005 09:52:54 -0400
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"Travis, John" <[log in to unmask]>
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Federal order spurs debate 
Law orders schools to observe Constitution Day with special activities  
By RICK KARLIN, Staff writer 
First published: Thursday, July 21, 2005 
It won't be a day off from school, but Sept. 16 will likely bring some new activities to students in New York and nationwide, in light of a new federal law mandating an annual Constitution Day.
Authored by West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, the law states that schools that receive federal funding must offer programs to educate kids about the U.S. Constitution on or about Sept. 17, the date on which the document was first signed in 1787.

Almost all public schools get at least some federal dollars. And since Sept. 17 is on a Saturday this year, most schools are expected to hold their celebrations on Sept. 16.

New York state already requires that schools offer instruction about the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Students get some exposure to the Constitution starting in fourth grade, and by the time they take 11th-grade U.S. History, they should be steeped in the document, said Joseph Corr, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at the North Colonie district. "We go well beyond Sept. 17," said Corr.

Still, word of the new Constitution Day is just now making its way to some schools.

In Albany, Robert Van Amburgh, who is the district's social studies director, said he has heard of the new law but wasn't yet familiar with the details. And in Menands, Superintendent Dawn Marie Blasl said she would have to discuss plans with the school board.

Moreover, some have asked if the law is just another mandate coming down from on high.

"These are matters that (local) boards of education have been deciding for centuries and are perfectly able to decide," said David Ernst, spokesman for the state School Boards Association.

While agreeing that students should learn about our nation's founding document, Ernst said local districts don't like to be told what to teach and when to teach it.

"There are very few mandates that have been passed that aren't in and of themselves desirable," he said. But he added, "In the aggregate, they place a huge burden on districts."

The law does have supporters.

"In general, research shows that students' knowledge of the Constitution is weak," noted B. Jason Brooks, senior researcher at the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability, a group that looks at school reform issues.

Elaine Reed, executive director of The National Council for History Education, agreed that lots of schools nationwide already cover the Constitution, but this will encourage more to do it.

"The spirit of this measure is commendable," added James G. Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which promotes history education.

Reed said there are a number of ways teachers can incorporate the Constitution and Bill of Rights into their lesson plans: they can put on mock Constitutional conventions, study the lives of the framers or conduct case studies of constitutional issues in modern life.

Additionally, the state Education Department has links on its Web site -- http://www.nysed .gov -- to the National Constitution Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group promoting better understanding of the document, and they plan to offer tips to educators.

The new law is not without its irony, observers noted, because the Constitution includes limits on federal authority over the states.

That could be a case study itself, said Corr. "That would be taking a look at the Constitution as a dynamic and living document," he said. 


John N. Travis
Albany County Historian/
Real Property Investigator
112 State St, Albany NY 12207