The issue likely would never have come up if the Alabama Legislature had not responded to the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling and the possibility that black children might go to school with white children. By 1956, those events birthed constitutional Amendment No. 111, which, among other things, said that Alabama children did not have a right to a state-financed education. This would allow the state to close its schools rather than integrate. The white people of Alabama overwhelmingly approved the amendment. Black residents, by and large, were not allowed to vote.
In the 1990s, a lower court overturned the amendment, and since the Alabama Supreme Court did not rule on that decision, some argue that Amendment 111 is no longer valid.
Nevertheless, in 2004, in an effort to remove racist language from the state Constitution, the amendment was rewritten in such a way that now-Chief Justice Roy Moore fanned fears that if education was a “right,” then the ever-evil federal government would force us to adequately finance the schools. As a result of Moore’s demonizing, voters rejected the proposal.
Thus, the amendment was rewritten without the guarantee of the right to education. Those who felt education should be a right rallied against the new plan, and it was defeated.
Faced with this impasse, former Gov. Albert Brewer, a member of the commission, made a remarkably reasonable suggestion.
“Let’s not worry about the past,” he said. Instead, let’s focus on “what we want and think ought to be the law.”
Look forward, not back.
The fact is that few, if any, states have the “right” to education written into their constitutions. If Alabama had not been so determined to let the federal government know it would rather not educate children than educate them in integrated schools, what was written into the 1901 document — that there should be a “liberal system of public schools throughout the state” — might be sufficient.
Though surely some will quibble over the word “liberal,” maybe what we need is a broad statement of principle and let the details be determined by statute.