After studying education for over twenty years, the Right2Learn Dignity Lab (R2L) has concluded that the primary impediment to significantly improving public education in Colorado is the educational clause in the state’s constitution. As it stands, the state’s educational clause guarantees that public schools will be open for three months out of the year but does not speak to the nature of the education that these schools must provide or assert that education is a fundamental right. Given R2L’s belief that the constitution needs to include a more robust statement about what rights Coloradoans have regarding education, they have organized a grassroots campaign to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot. Although R2L feels that it is critical to ensure the state constitution includes modern language regarding education, they note that this legislative effort must be accompanied by an overarching revolution in the way we think about education in order for our public school systems to move in a better and more progressive direction. Primarily, the group is hoping that their proposed constitutional amendment will serve to codify the right of all Coloradoans to have access to educational institutions that affirm, instead of deny, basic human dignity. Not only does their proposed amendment present education as a fundamental right, but they hope that with a new and more robust standard, the state of Colorado will be compelled to allocate significantly more resources to educational institutions in order to ensure they are in compliance with their constitutional mandate.

Envisioning a Dignity Affirming School Environment

It is not entirely clear how adopting the amendment will alter the day-to-day experience of being in a school. In part, R2L hopes that through fostering community conversation regarding the proposed amendment, community members themselves will define what concrete changes in education should occur in relation to the new clause. As Tania Soto Valenzuela, director of the Right2Learn Dignity Lab, explained, because “most of the time people have experiences where they experience indignities in schools” it is important that they are “given space to imagine how education could be different if the language of the amendment was different.” She believes that although no single individual can foresee all of the changes needed for schools to be places where dignity is affirmed, through ideational collaboration, the community can collectively determine how to best improve education in light of the demands of the proposed amendment.

In a recent town hall, for instance, community members had many ideas about the way the proposed amendment would change education if it was in the constitution. Some community members suggested that it would lead to more humane treatment of students and a more stringent commitment to providing basic accommodations. For instance, one parent noted that currently, schools restrict the ability of students to determine when they should go to the bathroom, eat, or rest. They hoped that under the proposed amendment, limiting the autonomy of students in these ways might then be considered a violation of constitutional rights. Another person noted that adopting the proposed amendment would force schools to provide more nutritious school lunches, as receiving proper nutrition is fundamental to human development.

Skepticism 

Others were however skeptical that changing the state constitution would result in any significant changes in the experience of education for most Coloradans. Largely pointing to potential issues regarding the interpretation of the language in the proposed amendment and the inability for the constitution to change overarching societal conditions, some thought that even if adopted, nothing about education would really change. As one DPS alum noted, “I’m just afraid that this is just a bunch of word vomit, and that they want to throw something in the constitution that looks pretty, and looks nice and looks like we’re for equality and that school is like a sanctuary but I mean there’s a contradiction if you want to throw that in the constitution but schools are still getting shot up, and kids are still lacking access to food.”

Another DPS alum speculated that schools would just find a way to become compliant with a new constitutional mandate while not meaningfully improving the quality of education. He said it this way: “without any type of enforcement mechanism, I don’t see anything changing or any way to measure whether or not that’s happening. I could see a lot of school districts bullshitting their way through saying they’ve met this constitutional right.”

At the heart of the skepticism for many community members was a suspicion that constitutional language only reflects ideals but has no meaningful connection to people’s actual experience of education. They pointed out, for instance, that the language of the federal constitution has long articulated lofty ideals that are disconnected from the actual experience of many Americans and questioned why that would not also be the case for this proposed educational clause. As one DPS alum put it, “the [proposed] amendment reads beautifully, like damn…. This is what I would like my kid to go through with public education. It sounds beautiful, it’s very aspirational, it’s very progressive, but thinking about how the system operates, what would the implementation look like?” R2L, for its part, welcomes this type of critical discussion regarding the implementation of the proposed amendment as the amendment can only have teeth if it is reinforced through mechanisms for accountability.

Several community members suggested that the only way a constitutional amendment could really shift the behavior of schools is by wielding the law to make schools accountable for quantifiable outcomes. They shared a concern that although the ambitions of the amendment are laudable, because assessing whether or not public schools are “spaces where compassionate guidance abounds” would be subject to a variety of interpretations, the new amendment might ultimately prove too vague to support substantive change. They noted that more concrete language regarding the nature of public education might better align with the effort to ensure resources for public schools are more appropriately allocated.

As R2L traverses the state, presenting its educational clause to a wide array of audiences in an effort to gain political support for the cause, they plan to continue to crowdsource ideas about how the passage of this amendment would alter the experience of education in the state of Colorado. Perhaps a clearer vision of the impact that the proposed amendment might have on the day-to-day experience of being in a school will emerge as community members continue to discuss what needs to be addressed in order for educational spaces to be places where dignity is affirmed.

en_USEnglish