Photo courtesy of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies

Earlier this session, the West Virginia House of Delegates passed legislation and sent it to the Senate requiring public schools to dedicate a week to the specific study of the concepts of freedom and liberty.

West Virginia already has a requirement in code (18-2-9) that the Constitution be taught in civics class, but HB 3080 includes a more detailed prerequisite.

The bill designates “Celebrate Freedom Week” for early September each year, when social studies classes must include “in-depth study of the intent, meaning and importance of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States with an emphasis on the Bill of Rights.”

The bill also requires high school students to take a test that is “the same as or substantially similar to the civics portion of the naturalization test used by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service” to measure their achievement in civics.

This is a growing trend across the country.  The Associated Press reports “Kentucky last week and Arkansas on March 16 became the latest of more than a dozen states since 2015 that have required the high school studies curriculum to include material covered by the 100 questions asked on the naturalization exam.”

It would be presumptuous to assume what the late Senator Robert Byrd would have said about this trend, but we know he revered the Constitution, carried a well-worn copy in his breast pocket and lamented how little many Americans knew about the document.

In his biography “Child of the Appalachian Coalfields,” Byrd referred to a lecture he gave in Morgantown in 1998 where he cited poll numbers showing “only 66 percent (of Americans) recognized that the first ten amendments to the Constitution constitute the Bill of Rights; 85 percent mistakenly believed that the Constitution says, ‘All men are created equal’.”

“They tell us that while our educational system is good at ingraining feelings of respect and reverence for our Constitution, that same system is apparently very poor at teaching just what is actually in the Constitution and just why it is so important,” Byrd said.

It was Senator Byrd who attached an amendment to an omnibus spending bill in 2004 that designates September 17 as Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.

It is reasonable, however, to question the extent to which West Virginia’s Legislature should dictate to the public school system what to teach and how to teach it.  The Department of Education maintains considerable autonomy and, in theory at least, is governed by the state Board of Education and local school boards.

If the bill becomes law, there will no doubt be some grousing by civics teachers who already devote considerable time to the founding documents or resent being told by politicians what is best way to teach government and history.

That’s understandable, but the values and principles of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are the bedrock of our country and our culture. Comprehending them is the key to truly knowing what it means to be a citizen of this country.

 

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