Let's Help, Not Hinder, Schools in Teaching the Constitution

Constitution Day is upon us and in the spirit of a day meant for school officials to spend more time teaching youngsters about the Constitution, my organization, the American Constitution Society, is bringing lawyers and law students to public schools nationwide to teach nonpartisan and objective lessons on the nation's founding document.

While the Constitution deserves much more than a day, ACS applauds the recognition this day gives to that great document. We all know, and studies confirm, that students know too little about our nation's history and form of government. Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has lamented, "When I went to school, we had all kinds of courses on civics and government. Today, at least half the states don't even require high school students to take civics; only three states require it in middle school."

Constitution in the Classroom, launched by ACS in 2006, taps a nationwide network of lawyers and law students as volunteers to teach classes about the Constitution in high schools, middle and elementary schools. Our curriculum is neutral and focused on the rights and liberties contained in the Constitution that affect students' lives, such as the First Amendment's rights to free speech and freedom of religion. Part of the reason why our courses are neutral and not politically charged is because we are teaching cases decided by the Supreme Court, such as Tinker v. Des Moines and Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. The Constitution in the Classroom programs start this week with courses to be taught in schools from coast to coast. In a Washington, D.C. school, former Acting Solicitor General Walter Dellinger will lead our program by teaching a course on students' free speech rights.

When Congress required federally funded schools to teach students about the Constitution it likely did not intend for politically charged constitutional lessons to be taught to children. But as reported earlier this year by Stephanie Mencimer, the Tea Party Patriots, one of this nation's largest Tea Party groups, launched an effort to use Constitution Day to push a highly controversial curriculum, based on materials prepared by the late Cleon Skousen. Mencimer described the courses as having "no place in the nation's classrooms."

The Associated Press subsequently reported on the classes, noting that they also included material from an Idaho-based group that "promotes the Constitution as a divinely-inspired document." Moreover, the group's website says that if public school officials balk at teaching the curriculum, one should inform a local Tea Party group, and then "contact the media in your community."

This is no way to go about enriching our nation's public school civics courses.

There is a real need to improve civics education in our nation's schools, one that should be taken seriously. And one that should not be used to advance a political agenda, which is why the Tea Party Patriots' constitutional curriculum should be left out of the public schools. Constitution Day is worthy of celebration; let's help schools do so in a positive, productive manner.