RALEIGH — A little more than one year after North Carolina public school officials proposed a controversial plan to slice much of pre-1877 history out of the state’s high school curriculum, state lawmakers have stepped in to guarantee that the curriculum includes instruction on the nation’s Founding era.
A bipartisan General Assembly approved House Bill 588, The Founding Principles Act, during the closing days of the main 2011 legislative session. As lawmakers engaged in partisan battles over more controversial measures, the House approved H.B. 588 106-5, and the Senate endorsed it 43-0. Gov. Beverly Perdue signed it into law June 23.
“The survival of the republic requires that our nation’s children, the future guardians of its heritage and participants in its governance, have a clear understanding of the Founding Philosophy and the Founding Principles of government for a free people,” according to the act’s preamble. The new law goes on to note that students will find the philosophy and principles “in the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, the Federalist Papers, and the writings of the Founders.”
The law specifically orders a semester-long course titled American History I – The Founding Principles. Students must pass the course to graduate from high school.
Ten specific principles earn special attention within the legislation: Creator-endowed inalienable rights of the people; the structure of government, separation of powers with checks and balances; frequent and free elections in a representative government; rule of law; equal justice under the law; private property rights; federalism; due process; individual rights as set forth in the Bill of Rights; and individual responsibility.
Legislators took action after debate about the state’s history curriculum generated national media attention in early 2010. Parents, historians, and lawmakers complained to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction after national media outlets such as Fox News publicized a proposal to start North Carolina’s high school American history instruction with the post-Reconstruction era in 1877.
Some observers believe last year’s media furor helped drive this year’s debate. “I have a feeling that big backlash is a part of it,” said Terry Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation. “I have to think the whole dustup with the U.S. history curriculum had something to do with it. I think there was cause for great concern.”
Troy Kickler, director of the North Carolina History Project, said he was pleased to hear of the new law. He said it is important for students to read and study the founding documents so they can understand the roots of America.
“It ensures students learn about the past — how the Founding Fathers framed the Constitution and how America gained independence from England,” he said.
Despite his initial enthusiasm, Kickler doesn’t think the Founding Principles Act goes far enough. As it stands, he said the course is incomplete and needs more content, including the hotly contested debates over constitutional issues that occurred at state ratifying conventions before the Constitution became part of the fabric of the nation.
Stoops also has mixed feelings about the new law. On one hand, he believes it offers excellent subject matter. On the other, he is worried that the General Assembly has entered the business of establishing a curriculum for public schools.
“It’s a slippery slope,” he said. “This is something we agree is important and critical for students, but what if something more controversial becomes curriculum through legislation? You have to wonder what their limits are. … I have mixed feelings about it.”
Stoops also worries about application of the new law. He said teachers will need to have a solid background in and thorough knowledge of both the documents and the history associated with the Founding era.
“Implementation could be difficult,” he said. “Most people who come out of college don’t know this stuff.”
The new law’s provisions also generated some confusion this summer.
Because the Founding Principles Act rewrote existing state law, the legislation quoted provisions in the current N.C. General Statutes. Sandwiched in between two rewritten subsections was a decade-old provision permitting school displays of historic documents such as the Magna Carta, Mecklenburg Declaration, Justinian Code, and Ten Commandments.
Left-leaning critics latched onto that existing provision to attack the new law as an attempt to promote the Ten Commandments in public schools. Among those who employed that line of attack was Gene Nichol, professor of law and director of the Poverty Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Nichol labeled the Founding Principles Act an example of Republican legislators’ “ideological forced march” in a July column for The News & Observer. But within days of the initial publication, Nichol recanted his column. He blamed misleading news reports for his misperception about the new law’s contents.
Although this year’s legislation changes nothing in state law regarding displays of the Ten Commandments, Kickler said the commandments should be used as a teaching tool because of their importance to our nation’s Founders.
“For example, ‘Thou shall not steal’ implies we should be able to own land and not have it unfairly taken away from us,” he said. “This influenced the Founders of this country and is more important to our current rules of law than other forms of law.”
In addition to a new course, the Founding Principles Act tweaks the state’s public school standardized testing program.
Since 1990, state law has required the State Board of Education to include questions about the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and Federalist Papers in statewide standardized tests. Starting in 2014-15, the new law adds to that requirement. Standardized test questions must now cover the “principles underlying” those documents, along with the “philosophical foundations of our form of government.”