Alabama voters decline to remove racist language from constitution over right to education concerns

[JURIST] Alabama voters rejected Amendment 4 [SB 112 text, PDF] on Tuesday, which would have removed references to segregation and poll taxes from the state's Constitution [text], over concerns about language addressing the right to education. The amendment, rejected by a vote of 61 percent [Fox WBRC report], proposed to "delete those remaining 'Jim Crow' provisions of the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, which have not been expressly repealed by vote of the people." The ballot text provided: "Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, to repeal portions of Section 256 and Amendment 111, now appearing as Section 256 of the Official Recompilation of the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, as amended, relating to separation of schools by race and to repeal Section 259, Amendment 90, and Amendment 109 [texts], relating to the poll tax." All state laws pertaining to segregation and poll taxes were repealed by Federal mandate, thus their inclusion in the constitution merely serves as an anachronism. However, advocates against Amendment 4 were concerned that by repealing unspecified portions of Section 256, the amendment would also remove, "The legislature shall establish, organize, and maintain a liberal system of public schools throughout the state for the benefit of the children thereof between the ages of seven and twenty-one years," thus deleting the State's right to public education. Indeed, the amendment to Section 256 would have changed the language to allow the legislature a much broader freedom in public education: "The legislature may by law provide for or authorize the establishment and operation of schools by such persons, agencies or municipalities, at such places, and upon such conditions as it may prescribe, and for the grant or loan of public funds and the lease, sale or donation of real or personal property to or for the benefit of citizens of the state for educational purposes under such circumstances and upon such conditions as it shall prescribe."

The author of the bill, state Senator Arthur Orr [official website] argued before the election that the amendment was solely about raising the status of Alabama globally [official blog post] by erasing embarrassing racial references. "Old stereotypes and perceptions are dredged up to cast our great state in a bad light, at times discouraging companies from bringing new jobs here because of our past." The Alabama Education Association (AEA) [advocacy website] described the bill [official blog post] as a "sheep in wolf's clothing": "Amendment Four would reinstate a former constitutional provision adopted in the 1950s that contains language eliminating the state's duty to educate all of the children of the state. This antiquated provision would again give life to words that say there is no right for our children to have a public education. Amendment Four could give education antagonists leverage to harm public education operationally and financially."

 

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