Constitutional issues

Legislators revisit forgotten teaching requirements

These are the third, fifth and sixth editions of a volume that was once standard in Nevada higher education—<i>The Nevada Constitution.</i>

These are the third, fifth and sixth editions of a volume that was once standard in Nevada higher education—The Nevada Constitution.


The Nevada Senate is processing a measure that would remove knowledge of the United States and Nevada constitutions, and knowledge of state statutes on schools, as requirements for school teachers in Nevada.

Senate Bill 20 was introduced by the Senate Education Committee at the request of the Clark County School District. It is already getting attention outside the state.

Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post ran the summary of the measure and then—apparently to indicate incredulity—wrote, “In case you didn’t quite believe what you read, the legislation would eliminate current requirements that licensing exams for teachers must include questions about the U.S. Constitution, Nevada’s constitution and state laws.”

Whether algebra or shop instructors must know about the constitutions and the voluminous hundreds of thousands of words in state school laws is only one factor legislators are considering. Of greater import to school districts is the difficulty they have dealing with recruitment in a teacher shortage. The Washoe County School District put out a statement: “WCSD supports S.B. 20 in reducing barriers to hiring teachers from out of state, especially in our hard-to-fill positions such as special education and secondary science and math.”

Teachers are not required at the outset of their teaching positions in Nevada to have this knowledge. The current statute allows “reasonable time” for teachers to bring themselves up to speed in the state. Exams are given semi-annually and teachers answer 55 questions on the constitutions and 70 on school laws. School laws are found in chapters 385 to 400 of Nevada Revised Statutes, plus a few others scattered through the 721 chapters.

In a letter to the editor of the Las Vegas Sun, Henderson resident and retired teacher Robert Bencivenga wrote, “If an educated person cannot pass these rather straight-forward, relatively easy exams, she shouldn’t be inside of a classroom. And do you want to know why history and civics illiteracy is rampant in our country? Because legislators and education leaders continue to place history and government subjects at the bottom of importance in the educational hierarchy. During my 25 years with the Clark County School District, I was told dozens of times by principals, school district administrators and state legislators that the social studies just aren’t that important when looking at the bigger picture.”

One Nevada columnist, Victor Joecks, takes the libertarian view that employment requirements and licensing are a bad idea generally: “SB20 … isn’t a litmus test on whether you care about the constitution. It’s about eliminating barriers to entry. Occupational licensing is a significant restriction in dozens of Nevada industries, and lawmakers should take an ax to as many licensing requirements as possible, including this one.”

Local problems

Even for teachers educated inside the state, instruction in these topics in Nevada higher education has become fairly casual. There is another statute that is not at issue at this year’s Legislature. It reads in part, “In all private schools, colleges and universities located within this state, except those [for the military and their families], instruction must be given in the essentials of the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Nevada, including the origin and history of the Constitutions and the study of and devotion to American institutions and ideals. … A student in such schools must not receive a certificate or diploma of graduation without having passed an examination upon the Constitution.”

But longtime University of Nevada, Reno figures say students now get the bare bones of such instruction. It appears to have happened during development of the campus’s “core curriculum” when political science and history were deemphasized.

One instructor said she is “not aware of any on-campus course that truly fits the requirements of the statute.”

Political scientist Richard Siegel, a professor emeritus who still teaches at UNR, said, “Some of us have been talking about this for decades. It’s sort of a lost battle.”

He also said, “There was long on the books a one-credit course in the Nevada Constitution.”

Such a course still exists, but not as classroom instruction: “PSC 100 - Nevada Constitution (1 unit) Introduction to the political history of Nevada through an examination of the Nevada Constitution. Satisfies the Nevada Constitution requirement. Not open to students who have obtained credit for PSC 103, PSC 208, or HIST 217. (Offered through correspondence only.)”

There is a grad level course, but it appears to have a broader purpose: “EL 791 - Special Topics: Nevada School of Law & Nevada Constitution Course.”

We were unable to determine what is used as a textbook. The book publishing arm of Nevada higher education once produced a title, The Nevada Constitution: Origin and Growth. It went through many editions over the years, updated in alternate editions by political scientists Eleanore Bushnell and Don Driggs. But the last update was many years ago, and the title is long out of print. The same is true of a 1993 title, The Nevada State Constitution: A Reference Guide by Michael Bowers.

The fact that the Nevada Constitution section of the Nevada teaching requirement can be put off by new arrivals can ease the difficulty of recruitment, but the very existence of that requirement probably drives off a certain number of applicants, too.

When asked if a high school biology teacher needs knowledge of the U.S. Constitution, Siegel said, “Probably not. But if you’re asking me if every person needs at least one good course in the U.S. Constitution, I would say absolutely. Absolutely. And it’s not because they are teachers but because they are citizens.”