BILL$ OF RIGHT$

If these students ran the Mint, you'd be able to brush up on the Constitution every time you handled a dollar bill.

Students at Liberty Middle School in Virginia's Hanover County would like to put the United States Constitution in the hands of all Americans. Literally.

In fact, they'd like people around the world to be able to read about our blueprint for democracy. Their simple plan? Print an abbreviated version of the Constitution and our Bill of Rights on the back of our paper currency.

Sparked by a civics lesson three years ago, students in Randy Wright's government class began a drive to place the condensed Constitution on the back of the dollar bill. Today the project has been handed down to succeeding classes, while graduates of the course, now students at nearby Patrick Henry High School, join them to promote the idea through presentations, letter writing, a website, and other activities.

"People all over the world will know about our rights and our Constitution," seventh-grader Sade Rose says with pride, envisioning a day when the "Liberty Bill" becomes reality. Her classmate, Anne Brooking Harris, adds that she likes the idea because "even many American-born citizens don't know much about our Constitution, and it will be right on the back of the money we carry!"

Along the way during this seemingly quixotic drive, students have learned not only the fundamentals of the nation's most important document, but how government works: how to work with legislators, how to lobby, and the difference between getting a bill introduced in Congress and having it discussed in a subcommittee hearing. They've also involved schools from New Jersey to North Dakota. In Missouri, students at Festus High School helped win the support of US House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D).

Their most recent converts have the Hanover students abuzz with excitement: The student government of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., recently voted to make passage of what's referred to as the Liberty Bill a top priority for political activism at their school.

Students from Patrick Henry and Liberty will visit the Harrisonburg campus March 14 to give a presentation of their proposal at the 250th birthday celebration of James Madison, considered by many to be the father of the Constitution. A week later, James Madison students will visit legislators in Washington. They are also networking with alumni and contacting at least 50 other colleges and universities across the country for support.

On the heels of a dizzying presidential election, Mr. Wright's students are excited about government. And they are convinced the lessons from this particular project will be long-lasting.

Lindsey Buracker, a 10th-grader at Patrick Henry, recently spoke about the proposal before the Rules Committee of the Virginia House of Delegates. The students hoped to persuade state legislators to send a resolution to the US Congress encouraging passage of the Liberty Bill. Lindsey says she didn't think too highly of politicians before she became involved in the project, "but now I've met with delegates and seen them listen to us."

Lindsey also touts the learning-by-doing element. "You see the process through the presentations, going to Washington or the state capitol. It becomes visual. It's definitely helped me remember the Constitution and Bill of Rights."

"I think it has instilled pride in our children," says Gary Buracker, Lindsey's father. "They appreciate what these documents say, and what the words mean. And they are learning how much they need to continue their input to make this a reality.... It's not just a matter of having a good idea, it takes a lot of work."

Will it ever get to your wallet?

The bill has been introduced into the US House twice, last year garnering the support of 108 representatives. Rep. Eric Cantor, a freshman Republican from Richmond, will reintroduce the measure tomorrow. He hopes his seat on the Financial Services subcommittee will help get the bill into a subcommittee hearing, which is the current goal of Wright's students.

In the US Senate, Republican Sens. John Warner and George Allen of Virginia have agreed to cosponsor a companion measure. The only difference in the upcoming bills will be that, unlike earlier versions which focused on getting the Constitution on the back of $1 bills, they will simply ask that it to be put on currency.

The vending-machine industry opposes the idea, citing the large cost of retooling vending and changemaking machines to accommodate a new $1 bill.

Another, less-vocal set of critics says students (and politicians) are spending a lot of time promoting a change in a law that is unlikely ever to come about.

Meshing with learning standards

Wright likes to point out that, regardless of whether the law passes, the lessons learned in this project dovetail perfectly with what seventh-graders are studying under the Virginia Standards of Learning: the role of citizens in the American political system.

Specifically, students are instructed to focus on the US and Virginia Constitutions, and the structure and function of government at the local, state, and national level. They are also required to develop better oral-communication skills and refine written composition.

Students master these skills through presentations before elected officials, letters to legislators, and understanding why a subcommittee hearing is crucial to the survival of this project, Wright says.

Jonathan Green, a Patrick Henry 10th-grader, says his work on the Liberty Bill project has helped him in his high school government class. "It shows us how politics are very human, made up of so many people and viewpoints," he explains.

His mother, Miriam Green, says she's seen how government has come alive for the kids because the project takes them beyond learning facts and gets them involved in the process.

"It's an experience they'd never get otherwise," adds Susan Daniels, mother of eighth-grader Jessica.

"When you see the time and effort the students put into this proposal - this is how things happen in government. They truly feel: 'This is our government.' "

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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