The idea came to Randy Wright in a dream seven years ago. Ever since, he and his students at Liberty Middle School in Ashland, Virginia, have been trying to turn that dream into reality.
Their proposal: Print a shortened version of the U.S. Constitution on the back of the $1 bill. You know, in the space now occupied by the eagle and the big green pyramid with the eye over it.
Wright believes that redesigning the dollar would provide a quick but important civics lesson for people who know little about the Constitution, which lays out the nation's basic laws and the rights each person has. And people living overseas would gain a better understanding of democracy if they were handed a U.S. dollar and could read on it what the United States stands for.
Wright's government students have embraced the idea with vigor, drafting legislation (which they call the Liberty Bill Act) to change the dollar. They've promoted their bill on Capitol Hill, appearing before a committee of the House of Representatives, and at the White House. In May, 20 students came to Washington and handed out leaflets at the Lincoln Memorial and other spots.
"Most people were incredibly interested," said Liz Earnest, 14. "They wanted to know a lot about what [the change] would do and how it would promote human rights."
The U.S. Constitution emerged from a convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. The writers spelled out the framework for the new national government, including how elections would work and what powers the states would keep. The first 10 amendments, or changes to the Constitution, were approved four years later: They are known as the Bill of Rights and guarantee basic personal rights such as freedom of speech and freedom to worship as you please.
Over the years, 17 more amendments were approved: The 14th says that the laws apply equally to all citizens; the 19th gave women the vote; and the 23rd, added in 1961, gave D.C. residents the right to vote in presidential elections.
Sara Scates, 13, said that if people could read the highlights of the Constitution on the dollar, they might feel as she does: "By learning the Constitution, I know my rights, I know my freedoms. I know what I can do and what I can't do."
'Try New Things and Speak Out'
The students say that in learning about the government, they've learned something about themselves. Saba Mondal, 14, was nervous about coming to Washington and worried that people wouldn't listen. "But they did," she said. "So never be afraid to try new things and speak out."
The project even has its own Web site: www.libertydollarbill.org.
Not everyone thinks that redesigning the dollar is a good idea. Some say it would be expensive, including the cost of getting vending machines to accept the new bills; others think that reducing each part of the Constitution to just a few words -- "Rights of the accused," for example -- would make it nearly meaningless to most people.
Wright says the change would cost far less than what the United States now spends to promote itself overseas. And though a bare-bones version of the Constitution is not ideal, his students say it might prompt curious readers to learn more.
The measure has the backing of Virginia's senators and others on Capitol Hill but still has a way to go to become law -- if it ever does.
"It is kind of a disappointment, but this big of a change is going to take a while," Liz said. "So we have to work on it. We believe in it. If I'm still working on it in college, so be it."
-- Marylou Tousignant