Colleges to mark Constitution Day thanks to new law

Schools across the country receiving federal funds, including GW and neighboring universities, are preparing to commemorate the ratification of the Constitution this September because of a new law.

Last December, Congress passed a bill proposed by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) that requires schools to celebrate the newly enacted Constitution Day. According to the bill, any school that receives federal funding must develop an original curriculum to teach students about the Constitution on or around Sept. 17, which is also branded Citizenship Day. On Sept. 17, 1789, members of the Constitutional Convention signed the final draft of the document.

“While our educational system is good at ingraining feelings of respect and reverence for our Constitution … (it) is in need of great improvements in teaching what is actually in the Constitution and just why it is so important in our daily lives,” Byrd said in a news release.

While GW has not yet released its plans for the holiday, Matt Nehmer, assistant director of media relations, said students will be able to join in on the celebration by attending some sort of event.

“GW is planning on a Constitution Day event either right before or right after the holiday, Sept. 17,” he said. “Details are still being worked out.”

While neighboring universities are also finalizing their plans on how to commemorate the Constitution’s ratification, some higher education administrators are critical of the new provision. They claim that the federal government’s requiring certain curriculum to be taught could be the beginning of a slippery slope allowing it to mandate hosts of other programs.

The provision is also causing frustration because established lesson plans will have to be altered, and many cash-strapped schools may have a hard time budgeting for a holiday celebration, said Robert Walters, the associate vice president for Academic Affairs and special assistant to the president at the University of Maryland.

“Given that this requirement is an unfunded federal mandate, we’ve made the best of it,” Walters said.

Maryland plans to host a program featuring Judge Joseph Murphy, chief judge of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, discussing the Constitution and Supreme Court’s role in the 21st century.

“Our Constitution Day program … (will) give students a chance to meet and interact with a high-ranking judicial officer who will give a unique and informative perspective on the importance of the Constitution in our society,” he said.

Julie Green Bataille, assistant vice president for Communications at Georgetown University, said officials there are still finalizing plans for the holiday, but are hoping to offer a constitutional law class to the entire student body. They are also trying to get Byrd to speak on campus.

“We’re also going to distribute copies of the U.S. Constitution to all students,” she added.

The U.S. Department of Education has established helpful tools for schools still looking for a curriculum, including an online idea bank, but cannot enforce any particular standard for the curriculum, ironically under laws set forth in the Constitution.

Byrd, a senior senator who has served for 50 years and is known to keep a copy of the Constitution in his pocket, said he hopes for diversity in programming among schools, and expects students to learn from the experience.

“The guidelines do not impose a particular view or interpretation of the Constitution (but will) enable students to learn about one of our country’s most important historic documents,” he said in the release.

Other terms of the law require the head of each federal government agency or department to train new employees about the Constitution. If Sept. 17 falls on a weekend or another holiday, institutions must schedule programming immediately before or after the date.

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