By Senate Minority Leader Roger Bedford
The old adage “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” perfectly sums up Amendment 4, on the ballot this Tuesday, Nov. 6.
The text on the general election ballot says Amendment 4 will remove racist language in the state constitution that requires schools to be segregated. It is true the amendment will remove some very nasty and sad racist language. What the ballot language does not say is that Amendment 4 will also reaffirm some of the most racist and sad parts of the state constitution at the same time. The good intentions of some who want to get rid of our racist past have now created a situation where voters could actually reaffirm some of the worst aspects of our state constitution.
If you vote “yes” on Amendment 4, you will be voting to affirm this statement: “…nothing in this Constitution shall be construed as creating or recognizing any right to education or training at the public expense.” You read that right, voting “yes” on Amendment 4 means you affirm that children do not have the right to an education in Alabama.
To understand how we got to this backward place, where an amendment says one thing and does another, you need to know a little history and a lesson in how the statehouse works.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregation in education was unconstitutional in the landmark decision of Brown vs. Board of Education. The following year, as a response to the decision, the Alabama Legislature and voters approved Amendment 111 to the state constitution.
There are three paragraphs in Amendment 111. The first eliminated the longstanding right to an education, the second facilitated the founding of private segregation academies, and the third demanded the segregation of students. The thinking went if Alabama was forced to integrate, then the state would blow up the public school system, as it existed then.
Amendment 111 was found to violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution by the Supreme Court and was never implemented. It has been sitting there in the state constitution as an empty relic of racial strife and discrimination.
Back in 2004, a measure went before voters to eliminate the three paragraphs of Amendment 111. But after Judge Roy Moore and other conspiracy theorists wrongly said it was a back door attempt at raising taxes through the courts, it went down in a narrow defeat to the embarrassment of us all.
The taxation issue is ridiculous. The judiciary does not control taxes or set budgets, and the state Supreme Court has stated it would never try and do so.
Last year, another measure was before the Legislature that would have eliminated all three paragraphs of Amendment 111. But after some last minute maneuvering by the Republican supermajority, only the last paragraph was struck and the first two were left intact. That is why when voters say “yes” to Amendment 4, they will in fact be voting to reaffirm that children have no right to an education in Alabama. We know now the old 1950s language means nothing, but it is potentially very dangerous if voters reaffirm there is no right to an education in 2012.
I believe Alabama children must have the right to a public education. As it turns out, so do the vast majority of Alabamians with a recent statewide poll showing 92 percent believe children should have the right to an education at the public expense.
It is only common sense – children need to go to school because our state will rise or fall on how well we educate them. Who would question that children should have the right to an education? Yet, that is exactly what we’ll be doing if we vote “yes”.
If the Republicans who control the Legislature are serious about eliminating racist language, they will bring up a clean bill that gets rid of all three paragraphs and that finally rids us of that ugly relic of Alabama history. If they don’t, then something else may be at issue.
I strongly encourage every voter who cares about children and education to vote “NO” on Amendment 4.
We’ve already got enough bad paving stones in our antiquated and ridiculous state constitution.
Senator Roger Bedford is a Democrat from Russellville. He has served in the Alabama Senate since 1982. In 2010, Senator Bedford was elected Senate Minority Leader by the Senate Democratic Caucus.