Schools need flexibility that initiative would stifle

Monte Benham, a local conservative activist, is mounting his first petition drive after a four-year break.

Once a teammate of Washington's near-full-time initiative writer, Tim Eyman, Benham is perhaps best known locally for his unsuccessful attempt to defeat a slight sales tax increase for Ben Franklin Transit in 2002.

Voters approved the raise by more than 10 percentage points -- 55 percent to 45 percent.

This time Benham is again pushing a favorite idea of his.

He wants the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence plus the Washington Constitution taught in public schools by law.

He says he wants the concept of religious freedom taught in fifth- and eighth-grade classrooms and in two years of high school.

We have our usual objections to government by initiative.

This one seems to be intended more as a political opportunity than a needed reform.

Benham remarked to Herald reporter Michelle Dupler that he thinks the students might know more than the teachers in the end, because he believes many teachers haven't had adequate training in these founding documents.

It is a good idea, although hardly an original one, that students be exposed to these documents and the meaning behind them during the process of their education.

But putting four classes on the statute books would beg the question: What do we throw out to get these mandated classes in?

Where will the money come from to teach these classes if they are not already being taught? Benham is not proposing a tax to pay for this new burden on a system already buckling under conditions of funding cuts, overcrowding and teaching to standardized tests.

Benham is looking for volunteers to get his petitions signed. He thinks he'll need about 300,000 signatures to get Initiative 1058 on the ballot.

Using volunteers will make it easier for some voters to sign.

Benham distanced himself from Eyman when Eyman began paying himself a salary out of contributions to one of his campaigns.

In the end, we agree students should be taught about the most important documents in their state and nation. However, we're confident that's already occurring in civics and history classes.

Here's what existing state law says:

"The study of the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the state of Washington shall be a condition prerequisite to graduation from the public and private high schools of this state."

Benham aims to toss out that broad mandate and micromanage classroom curriculum via voter initiative.

We can't imagine a more clumsy way to run a school system.