Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, who died June 28 at the age of 92 after 51 years in the U.S. Senate, leaves as part of his legacy programs born of his passionate advocacy of history and civics education.
Sen. Byrd, a Democrat who was known for carrying a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his pocket, pushed through legislation in 2004 requiring that public schools and colleges receiving federal aid conduct educational programs about the document each year on or near Sept. 17, the date the charter was approved by the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
The longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history, the Senate’s president pro tempore, and a former majority leader of the chamber, Sen. Byrd also left his imprint through other education-related programs. They include the Teaching American History grants program, created in 2001, which supports teacher professional development in that subject, and the Byrd Honors Scholarship Program, which annually provides $40 million in merit-based scholarships for high school students.
Sen. Byrd was a fierce defender of his priorities. Earlier this year, for example, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proposed a sweeping consolidation of programs— including the $119 million Teaching American History program—as part of the U.S. Department of Education’s still-pending fiscal 2011 budget request. That drew strong opposition from Mr. Byrd.
“I am gravely concerned about the administration’s decision to eliminate the Teaching American History grant program and roll its contents into a much broader educational concept,” Sen. Byrd said in a statement. “In doing so, I believe our students’ understanding of our rich history will suffer.”
Numerous times over the years, Sen. Byrd also proposed constitutional amendments that would guarantee students the right to pray voluntarily in schools. In introducing one such proposal in 2006, he cited rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court that he said “have been moving closer and closer to prohibiting the free exercise of religion in America.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2010 edition of Education Week as History, Civics Education Element of Byrd’s Legacy