Open letter to Constitution Revision CommissionPublished 9:15pm Tuesday, September 17, 2013
Dear Commission Members:
I ask you to help move us forward to a future of hope and promise. Please do not take us back to the past of fear and trepidation. The choice is really in your hands.
Your vote on the proposed Constitution Amendment providing for public education makes a clear choice between a bright future filled with hope and promise and a storm cloud-filled future of fear and trepidation. Your vote makes that choice not just for you, but the future of all who live, work and struggle in Alabama. Your vote makes that choice for students, parents, communities, businesses, varied institutions and all of us regardless of our status in society. It is a profound choice with far-reaching consequences, and it’s in your hands.
I know firsthand the power of public education. My family was very, large with 15 members including my mother, father and 13 children. At one time, eleven of us lived in a three room house. And I do not mean a three bedroom house but a three room house: a kitchen; a middle room; and a front room. We were also extremely poor materially. Food would sometimes run out on Wednesday, and we had nothing but blobs of grits until more food could be purchased on Friday. My future was circumscribed by harsh poverty and stifling segregation, but public education made the difference (although I had to take algebra and geometry at night in New York after graduating from high school in Alabama because African American schools in our neck of the woods did not provide these courses).
Without public education, I would not have graduated from high school or attended college or law school. I would not have become a lawyer or served in the Alabama State Senate or served in so many other capacities. I would not have written a novel or some 1,371 Sketches. Public education made a world of difference for me and for millions of others. We owe that same opportunity to our children and our children’s children. It must be a right, not a privilege. That choice is in your hands.
The choice is simple and clear: support a proposed Constitution Amendment that gives our children an unqualified right to a public education. Commission members, the 22-word proposal before you was this: The Legislature shall establish, organize and maintain a system of public schools throughout the state for the benefit of the children thereof. That provision is considerably less than the “liberal system of public schools” provided by the 1901 Alabama Constitution. However, we will accept that reduction in order to go forward.
What we cannot accept is the sleight of hand proposal you adopted in the Commission. You voted to add these words to the 22-word proposal: “Provided that nothing in this section shall create any judicially enforceable rights or obligations . . .” These additional words take us back to our stormy past of fear and trepidation. And the choice is in your hands.
This is a sleight of hand proposal. It gives a right to education with one hand and takes it away with the other. Nothing is a “right” if it cannot be judicially enforced. This is exactly what was done in the mid 1950s when the following language was added to the 1901 Alabama Constitution: “Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed as creating or recognizing any right to education or training at public expense.” This provision was enacted to prevent African American students from receiving a real public education. The wording was slightly different than that adopted by you, but it achieved the exact same result: public education as something less than a right. Counter actions will not just affect African American children but Alabama’s children in general.
Every other state in the United States, all 49 of them, have made public education an unqualified right. However, Alabama is once again turning back to a storm-filled past of fear and trepidation rather than moving forward into a future of hope and promise. And the choice is in your hands.
Members of the Constitution Revision Commission, I beg you to reconsider and change your vote in order to move us forward. Our children deserve no less. Our communities deserve no less. Our businesses deserve no less. Our varied institutions deserve no less. Our people deserve no less. And the choice — forward to a future filled with hope and promise or back to a past filled with fear and trepidation — is in your hands. Please handle our future with great care and clear foresight based on hope and promise, not fear and trepidation.
Epilogue — Education is a basic state right. With education, all our other rights are enhanced. Without education, all our other rights are diminished. With education, we rise. Without education, we are stuck. We must have a real right to a real education.