Nibbling at the Constitution

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

December 9, 2004

Since Sen. Robert C. Byrd has such a passion for the U.S. Constitution, he won't mind our exercising its free-speech provisions to describe his current proposal: Lame. Interfering. Counterproductive. Potentially unconstitutional.

All U.S. schoolchildren should learn about their nation's great document in depth and detail — which doesn't happen nearly enough. But Byrd's proposal for schools to teach lessons about the Constitution in every grade on one day each year — Sept. 17, the anniversary of the document's signing — defies good teaching, local school control and common sense. By attaching this bit of fluff to the massive spending bill that hurtled through Congress, the West Virginia Democrat made it almost certain to become law. That would set a terrible precedent.

The 10th Amendment to the Constitution says powers not specifically given to the federal government belong to the states. That includes public education. The feds get around this principle, as with the No Child Left Behind Act, by applying rules and standards only to schools that receive federal funding (just about all of them). Even the school reform act doesn't say how schools are supposed to achieve results; instead, it limits how poor-performing schools can spend federal money.

Byrd's rider moves an insidious step further down that road, implying that because the federal government doles out a little school money, Congress may prescribe curriculum — even for colleges and universities. The Constitution is a great topic, but where might this nibbling end, once each member of Congress sees the chance to take a bite? Will schools need to provide little dribbles of time each school year to mention yoga, Pocahontas and the Ten Commandments?

Now that this measure has become one of the many unrelated issues jammed into the spending bill, it will be up to the judicial branch to do what the legislative branch didn't: give it a good analytical look and knock it down. That would provide a lesson to meddlesome senators in the constitutional separation of powers.