Ohio Bill Mandates Teaching of U.S. Historical Documents

By Erik W. Robelen — December 14, 2011 2 min read
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State lawmakers are once again wading into the curriculum, this time in Ohio.

A bill approved yesterday by the Ohio House of Representatives would mandate changes to the state’s social studies standards to ensure that schools teach the “original texts” of several historical documents, including the U.S. and Ohio constitutions, the Declaration of Independence, and the Northwest Ordinance.

(The lead House sponsor of the bill, coincidentally, shares the name of a certain Founding Father: He’s none other than Republican Rep. John Adams. No, I’m not making this up.)

The bill also requires that, by 2014, at least one-quarter of questions on new end-of-course exams for American history and government relate to the founding documents. It was approved by a vote of 62-31, according to a story in the Columbus Dispatch.

Earlier this year, I wrote a big-picture piece about state lawmakers delving into the curriculum. One prime example was a Utah measure recently signed into law that also mandates the study of key historical documents, in that case the U.S. Constitution, the Mayflower Compact, and some Supreme Court decisions. In addition, the Utah law requires public schools to teach that the United States is a “compound constitutional republic.”

Although decisions on what gets taught are usually seen as the purview of school districts and state school boards, the legislatures in Utah and Ohio aren’t the first, and won’t be the last to try to influence the curriculum. Other recent examples span the country and content areas—civics and science, financial literacy, arts education, sex education, and anti-bullying measures that call on schools to work the issue into health classes.

The Ohio legislation was apparently sparked by a report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute that was critical of Ohio’s history-education standards, according to the Dispatch story. (The Washington-based think tank has an office in Dayton, Ohio.)

Adams said Ohioans cannot be expected to defend the rights and freedoms the Founding Fathers intended without an understanding of certain key historical documents, according to the Dispatch story.

“Would not one better understand social problems, economics, foreign affairs ... if they first had a grounding in the foundation of this country’s origins through the study of these founding documents?” he said.

The bill has encountered some criticism from Democrats, however.

“The bill seems to be overreaching,” said Rep. Debbie Phillips. “To get into this type of specificity of saying what percentage of what test is going to cover what material doesn’t seem, to me, to be our job.”

Another strand of criticism is that the focus on teaching “original” documents might limit students’ exposure to the full story of U.S. history.

“By teaching the Constitution without teaching the whole truth, this is where we come into problems,” said Rep. Clayton Luckie, D-Dayton. “Three-fifths of a human being; women not able to vote,” Democratic Rep. Clayton Luckie said, according to the Dispatch story. “You teach it all. When you leave parts out, you let individuals put their own thoughts into that and twist why things happened in our history.”

However, defenders of the bill said a change approved during the House debate would ensure the teaching of amendments to the Constitution as well.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.