published Thursday, October 25th, 2012

Alabama Education Association fighting Amendment 4 on racist language

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama Education Association is urging citizens to vote no on Amendment 4, which would remove language from Alabama’s constitution providing for separate schools by race.

At a news conference Thursday organized by AEA, four attorneys said what looks like a feel good constitutional amendment would harm public education because it restates language added to the constitution in 1956 to deter school integration. That language says there is no right to a public education in Alabama.

“It has all kinds of implications in the future for the diversion of education funds and for the funding of education generally. That’s why we are opposed to it,” Montgomery attorney Bobby Segall said.

The sponsor of Amendment 4, Republican Sen. Arthur Orr of Decatur, said in an interview that was not his intent. He said his proposed constitutional amendment simply removes outdated language from Alabama’s constitution about racially separate schools and about paying poll taxes to vote. He said he pushed the legislation because other states have used that language against Alabama when competing for new industries.

Alabama voters narrowly rejected a similar constitutional amendment in 2004, but that measure struck the 1956 language about not having a right to a public education. Opponents succeeded in defeating that version by creating fears that it would lead to tax increases. Orr said he was trying to avoid the tax issue with his proposal.

At the news conference, retired University of Alabama law professor Martha Morgan said Alabama could get a temporary black eye nationally if it rejects Amendment 4, but she said that is better than inflicting “a mortal wound to public education by taking away the right to a public education.”

Not all attorneys agree with the lawyers at AEA’s news conference.

Othni Lathram, director of the Alabama Law Institute at the University of Alabama, said Thursday the proposed constitutional amendment would not impact the rights, funding or structure of public education in Alabama.

Lathram, who advises the Legislature on legal issues, said the Legislature’s Constitutional Revision Commission will take up revision of education portions of the state constitution in 2013. He said the concerns raised by AEA would be better addressed to that panel.

AEA has been joined in its opposition by Alabama Arise, an advocacy group for Alabama’s poor, and by two large predominantly black political organizations, the Alabama Democratic Conference and the Alabama New South Alliance.

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