Is Constitution Day Unconstitutional?

America’s schools and universities marked the birth of the U.S. Constitution last week by complying with a federal mandate to teach about America’s most important document. But the congressionally directed celebration may turn out to be a lesson in irony — at least in one Nebraska high school.

Congress created Constitution Day in 2004 when Sen. Robert Byrd (D.-W.Va.) inserted a provision into an appropriations bill to require that all schools and universities receiving federal funding to celebrate “Constitution and Citizenship Day” by holding an educational program on the U.S. Constitution on September 17. (This year, the 17 falls on a Sunday, and so the government granted schools leeway to hold the lessons last week.)

Few would disagree that it is important for students and citizens to understand our founding principles and American history. But Byrd’s amendment stands at odds with the Constitution, and one public school teacher in Lincoln, Neb., has picked up on this irony and is sharing it with his students.

David Nebel’s AP Politics and Government class will comply with the federal mandate by considering whether the federal mandate is constitutional, reports Margaret Reist in the Lincoln Journal Star. Students will review the Constitution and write papers arguing for or against the mandate’s constitutionality. In the spirit of “Citizenship Day,” students are encouraged to send letters and a copy of their essays to their Nebraska senators and Byrd.

Now that’s making the Constitution come alive, even if it’s not exactly what Byrd intended.

Congress itself could benefit from a similar exercise. The Constitution provides strong guidance on which powers are delegated to Congress and the federal government and which powers are left to the states and people. It does not grant Congress any explicit role in education. Indeed, the word “education” does not appear anywhere in the Constitution.

But the same can be said for many of the federal government’s current responsibilities, from Social Security to Medicare to No Child Left Behind. Americans have become accustomed to a federal government with such broad powers, and few would recognize the relatively constrained government laid out in the Constitution. Regardless, precious few in Congress are schooled in limited government.

Over the past century, the federal government has become increasingly involved in citizen’s lives. In the case of education, the federal government had little responsibility 50 years ago. Today, it spends more than $66 billion annually on primary and secondary schooling and exerts more control over local schools than ever before, establishing national rules on local matters such as teacher training and student testing.

Few question whether it is appropriate or even wise for Congress to set rules for local schools. For example, neither presidential candidate argued for less federal intervention in local schools during the 2004 campaign.

Beyond the constitutional arguments against federal involvement in education, there’s another important consideration: whether the federal government’s role in local education is practical or effective. Are American taxpayers getting their money’s worth by sending billions of dollars to the IRS only to have it trickle back to the states through an expensive education bureaucracy?

The federal government’s involvement in education over the past four decades has not substantially improved public education in America. As federal spending has skyrocketed, long-term test scores have remained flat. Annual snapshots of student learning-such as test scores and graduation rates-suggest that millions of children still are not receiving a quality education in America’s public schools.

Over the next two years, Congress will debate the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind and the 2008 presidential campaign will begin a new national conversation on education. Many politicians no doubt will call for an even larger role in education. But like Mr. Nebel’s high school students, Americans should take time to reconsider the federal government’s role in education and ask whether it’s time for Congress to devolve federal authority back to local communities.