The goal sounds easy enough: Remove that racist language from the 1901 Constitution that, while rendered a dead letter by 20th-century progress, remains a public relations disaster for the state.
We’ve been here before. In 2004 and 2012, replacement language was rejected by the voters. In both instances, the flashpoint was over a “right” to a public education and its implications.
Some influential Alabama conservatives opposed the 2004 version because, they said, it would have established a right to education and therefore led to massive court-mandated tax increases. The 2012 go-round specifically outlined that revisions did not guarantee a right to education, something that led black leaders across the state to advocate for the amendment’s defeat.
Earlier this month, the Alabama Constitutional Revision Commission bravely — well, sort of — waded back into these murky waters. Its proposed change seeks compromise between the two sides yet also notes that “nothing in this section shall create any judicially enforceable right or obligation.”
Honestly, each failed effort to clean up this portion of the state’s great racial sin is one more boost to our neighboring states that often compete to land the same lucrative high-paying employers. So, we’ve got to keep trying to remove this nasty stain.
However, the language of education and rights is no small matter. Nor is it solely an occasion for progressive Alabamians to scoff at their regressive brethren who fear the R-word.
Plenty of other states have fretted about what might happen if an education, especially an equitable one, were to be considered a right for all residents. Further, states that more explicitly outline a right to education still struggle with the details.
For more than 40 years, California has considered education a “fundamental right,” yet there remains broad disagreement over whether the state is making good on that promise.
To read other state constitutions is to wade through flowery prose that nonetheless establishes a great national ideal based on the premise that education can be a great equalizer of opportunity.
• Free public school education is “a fundamental value of the people” of Florida.
• “Intelligence and virtue being the safeguards of liberty and the bulwark of a free and good government,” Arkansas “shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools and shall adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.”
• Idaho notes that “the stability of a republican form of government [depends] mainly upon the intelligence of the people.”
• “The state of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support.”
• “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools, libraries, and the means of education shall forever be encouraged” in North Carolina. There’s less encouragement in the most recently passed education budget in North Carolina; it’s expected to force a reduction in the number of educators and other schoolhouse cuts in the Tar Heel state.
Yes, words matter. However, all the constitutional language in the world is meaningless if it’s not backed up with resolute action from a state legislature and a governor.
A debate over the right to an education is little more than background chatter unless a state’s residents — its business class, its parents, its educators and school boards, its faith communities, its civic groups — speak with one voice, demanding recognition that our state’s future is directly tied to the quality of education every child receives.
Once that happens, we can expect (a.) more money from state and local governments for the cause of public education and (b.) more oversight to ensure those dollars are being put to their best use.
Changing the 112-year-old rhetoric of a bunch of bigots is difficult. Changing a state’s mindset may be even trickier.
Bob Davis is associate publisher/editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: EditorBobDavis.