BOSTON — The campaign between U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and challenger Elizabeth Warren was probably the most closely watched U.S. Senate race in the country and inspired passion and participation among voters across Massachusetts. But far too many of the commonwealth’s students don’t understand what the U.S. Senate is or why this race was so important.
The Founding Fathers designed the Senate to be a deliberative body that serves as a balancing force between the executive powers of the presidency and the more popular passions of the U.S. House of Representatives. In our federal government, the role of the Senate is to fully represent the often neglected rights and interests of the states.
The Roman republic provided the template for the Senate. In fact the word “Senate” is derived from the Latin “senatus,” which means “council of elders.” That is what our Framers had in mind. Each state — regardless of population — has two senators who serve six-year terms. It wasn’t until passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913 that senators were popularly elected. Before then, they were chosen by state legislatures.
The Senate’s heyday was the 1830s and ‘40s when the body was dominated by three senators who came to be known as the “Great Triumvirate.” Henry Clay of Kentucky, the “Great Compromiser;” Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, the “Great Orator;” and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, the “Cast-Iron Man;” were all distinguished orators and parliamentarians. Each was also appointed U.S. Secretary of State, but in the Senate they battled over historic issues like slavery, protective tariffs for industries, and states’ rights.
Webster was hardly the only great senator Massachusetts has produced. There was also John Quincy Adams, Charles Sumner, Henry Cabot Lodge, John and Edward Kennedy, and Edward Brooke, who was the first African-American popularly elected to the U.S. Senate.
As the elder statesmen of the American republic, senators have a number of powers that House members don’t. They include approving foreign treaties before ratification, as well as confirming the executive appointments of cabinet secretaries, military officers, ambassadors, U.S. Supreme Court justices, and other federal judges.
Even without the longer terms and special powers of its federal counterpart, the Massachusetts Senate also has a proud history that includes a tradition of leadership on state K-12 education reform.
In the early 19th century, Horace Mann, considered the “father of American public education,” was a Massachusetts Senate President. More recently, the majority of the commonwealth’s landmark 1993 Education Reform Act, which requires instruction in the major principles of America’s Founding Documents, was drafted by future Senate President Tom Birmingham.
Understanding the Senate’s importance requires knowing U.S. history and the Constitution. Sadly, on the civics portion of the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, only seven percent of America’s eighth graders could correctly identify the three branches of our government.
In 2009, Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education postponed a requirement that Massachusetts public school students pass a U.S. history MCAS test to graduate from high school. History had been slated to join English language arts, mathematics, and science as a graduation requirement beginning with the class of 2012.
Chester cited the prohibitive cost of administering the tests. But state legislators, who appropriate the money, disagree. In a recent poll, more than two-thirds (68 percent) of those surveyed said they could find the $2.4 million needed within the $4.5 billion the state spends annually on K-12 public education (local taxpayers contribute another $4.5 billion).
What isn’t tested isn’t taught. Three years after the commissioner and the board’s fateful decision, entire middle school social studies departments have been eliminated and history courses are being taught by English, math, and science teachers.
“[B]y making the power of the senate a sort of ballast for the ship of state and putting her on a steady keel,” wrote the first-century A.D. Greco-Roman historian Plutarch, “it achieve[s] the safest and the most orderly arrangement…”
No doubt, in our own politically tumultuous era, sound Senate leadership matters now more than ever. And isn’t it time to restore the U.S. history MCAS test so the Bay State’s schoolchildren can learn how best to perpetuate our deliberative democratic institutions?
Charles Chieppo is a senior fellow and Jamie Gass directs the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.
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