Over the last few weeks, the Alabama Education Association (AEA) and a number of Democrat lawmakers have led the charge to preserve racist language in Alabama’s Constitution by opposing Amendment 4 on the November 6 ballot.
Amendment 4 deletes language in Section 256 of Alabama’s Constitution relating to “elective” segregated schools and repeals poll tax provisions. In short, Section 256 of the Constitution of 1901 which required the Legislature to “establish, organize, and maintain a liberal system of public schools” was clearly unconstitutional under the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education because it also contained a provision requiring segregated schools. As a result, Alabama voters removed the offending language in 1956 with Amendment 111 and simultaneously eliminated the right to a public education in Alabama.
The AEA’s opposition is based on a 1993 decision in an equity funding lawsuit decided by Montgomery County Circuit Judge Gene Reese that they argue reinstates the original language of Section 256 and allegedly the constitutional mandate on the state to provide public education. Unfortunately for the opponents of Amendment 4, Judge Reese’s decision and the resulting remedial order were ultimately, and definitively, dismissed by the Alabama Supreme Court in 2002.
While the AEA and the Democrat lawmakers joining them in the fight against Amendment 4 might have wished that Judge Reese’s decision and remedy had been upheld, that is not the case. Simply disagreeing with a decade-old decision by the Alabama Supreme Court does not change the law and is hardly grounds for retaining offensive language in Alabama’s Constitution. The proposed amendment does nothing to either guarantee or remove the right to public education. Amendment 4 does remove racist language from Section 256 by deleting the third paragraph relating to segregated schools.
Although the discriminatory language in Alabama’s Constitution has no legal impact, the personal and social impact is profound. References to institutions and practices directly aimed at subjugating citizens because of their race and socioeconomic status have no place in the highest legal authority for the state.
Politicians and special interest groups frequently let technical arguments suspend their ability to discern between right and wrong. Regardless of the amendment opposition’s faulty reasoning or even the positive desire of many Alabamians to improve the state’s reputation, removing the racist language of Alabama’s Constitution is clearly the right thing to do. Those who endured the devastating effects of these laws when they were in force should not be forced to see even their empty shells remaining on the books.
Public education will continue in Alabama regardless of whether it is guaranteed by Alabama’s ever-changing Constitution or supported by the representatives of the people. More importantly, Alabama’s public education has tremendous room for improvement. The same ways of thinking, including racist sentiments, which created many of Alabama’s current educational problems are of little use in solving them. Alabamians should carefully consider whether those are the kind of thoughts they want to perpetuate when they cast their vote on November 6.
Cameron Smith is Policy Director and General Counsel for the Alabama Policy Institute, an independent, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.