Future may bring fight over Alabama education
by Tim Lockette
Nov 08, 2012 | 2821 views |  0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Alabama voters may have another chance to delete racist wording from the state constitution some time after the summer of 2013.

But the fight over that wording could present a major roadblock to the state’s efforts to rewrite and modernize the lengthy Constitution of 1901.

“This issue has been addressed twice now, and it’s been a failure, and I don’t know how we’re going to solve that,” said state Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood.

DeMarco is the vice-chairman of the state’s Constitutional Revision Commission, a group of legislators, lawyers and laypersons who are charged with reviewing and rewriting the state’s Constitution, article by article.

There’s a lot to rewrite. The 111-year-old Constitution is the longest state constitution in the United States, and reform advocates claim it’s the longest governing document in the world. The Star’s in-house copy of the document contain 703 amendments and covers 777 pages; more than 100 amendments have been added since that edition was printed, including more than 10 approved in Tuesday’s election.

Among the measures on the ballot Tuesday were Amendment 9 and Amendment 10, two measures that re-wrote the constitutional wording on banks and corporations, taking away century-old provisions governing telegraph companies and restricting the political influence of railroad barons.

Both amendments came out of the Constitutional Revision Commission, and members of the commission see them as the beginning of broader reform.

“If they hadn’t passed, it wouldn’t bode well for the future of this effort,” said Birmingham lawyer Jim Pratt, a member of the commission.

But Amendments 9 and 10 weren’t the only rewrites on the ballot. Voters on Tuesday had the chance to strike wording that mandated a poll tax and guaranteed separate schools for “white and colored children.” Those words have been unenforceable since the days of the civil rights movement.

Still, voters chose by a wide margin to keep them.

Amendment 4, the measure that would have stricken the racist language, got only 39 percent of the vote, according to the latest numbers from the Secretary of State’s office.

It was the second time in a decade that voters refused to erase the “white and colored” wording — but the argument about those words was never wholly about race. Both times the measure was on the ballot, arguments arose about whether the state should remove segregation-era language that said children have “no right to education.” Amendment 4, which kept the “no-right” wording, was opposed by some black leaders and many educators.

Amendment 4 didn’t come out of the Constitutional Review Commission. But the same debate is likely to come up again in mid-2013, when commission members plan to rewrite the entire constitutional article on education — including the segregationist wording. Those changes would eventually come before the voters as a single amendment.

The prospect of revisiting the racist passages, along with other passages on education that could become just as controversial, has some commission members worried that the reform effort will stall.

“The only thing the commission has done so far is clean up archaic language,” said Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham. “Nothing we do is going to really change anything in Alabama, I’m afraid.”

In the case of the racist wording, she said, even cleaning up the language is difficult.

Pratt said the Tuesday vote was a warning sign to let the commission know it needs to study the “no right to education” wording carefully.

Bolder changes, such as the creation of charter schools, are not likely to be on the table, commission members said.

“We were tasked with amending a constitution, not with legislating,” Pratt said.

Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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