After years of study, members of the Right2Learn Dignity Lab (R2L) have come to the conclusion that significantly improving the quality and experience of public education in Colorado requires an amendment to the state’s constitution. According to members of the organization, it is critical that the constitution professes that Coloradoans are entitled to an education which promotes the “actualization of human potential.” Currently, the state’s constitution simply proclaims that, in order to receive funding, each school district in the state is obligated to keep a public school open for three months out of the year. According to R2L the current framing of education reduces public education to the same magnitude of importance as other state-provided services like highway maintenance or tree removal. Because they believe education, unlike other state provisions, is deeply connected to human development and social progress, R2L has crafted a constitutional amendment which affirms the special status of education. In their proposed amendment to the state’s constitution, they provide an educational clause which declares education a fundamental right which is necessary for achieving social equality and “the fulfillment of freedom, justice, and peace.” Well beyond the guarantee that public schools will be open, the group has crafted an educational clause which states that “public schools are sanctuaries, spaces where the inherent and inalienable dignity of the human person is inviolate, spaces where compassionate guidance abounds.”

Importantly, members of the organization think positioning dignity as the guiding principle for reforming education will help ensure that students have access to educational experiences that are uplifting and empowering. Dignity can often feel like an esoteric term which is not intrinsically relevant to pragmatic discussions regarding improving the day-to-day experiences of students in public schools. Members of the group suggest that emphasizing the importance of affirming dignity is pivotal for guiding and promoting progressive change in public education. Back in 2020 for instance, Dr. Manuel Luis Espinoza, a founding member of R2L, reminded his audience that “dignity is not a lifeless abstraction,” but rather, “it is a living, social verb still in the process of finding recognition on our planet.” Codifying the idea that we are entitled to educational opportunities which affirm dignity would be a demonstration of the recognition that the state is obligated to provide public schools which are not only open, but function as “havens for learning and growth.”

By changing the constitutional standard, the group thinks they can find the legal basis to support reforms to public education in Colorado that promote equity. With a constitutional standard in place that asserts that a dignity-affirming education is a fundamental right, school districts that have historically been neglected and underfunded may find novel grounds for demanding additional resources from the state.  Since amending the constitution would have implications for all schools throughout the state, shifting education to the status of a fundamental right should provide grounds for believing education would improve for all students. One member of the organization in a recent town hall noted that, in order for public schools to become equitable, it is necessary that all students feel recognized as “a human person with dignity and rights.” Another person noted that in the current educational system, it often feels as though a simple mistake could disqualify one from being entitled to such an educational experience. In effect, a lack of equity in the educational system makes the right to education seem like a conditional privilege as opposed to an inalienable right. Rethinking what the state is obligated to provide in terms of education may help challenge the notion that students’ access to an education, which respects their inalienable dignity, is contingent upon their perpetual success. As they put it, “education as a fundamental right means being able to make mistakes and be forgiven. I think something that has been challenging for me is carceral systems…. it’s okay to make mistakes and fail, but our systems often don’t make it feel that way. Making mistakes and failing is a part of learning, but often kids are afraid to make mistakes and fail because it’s consequential.’’

Contextually, R2L’s effort to promote a new understanding of what students are entitled to is ongoing in a social and political environment where the future of education is quite a contentious topic. The prominent topic of ‘culture wars’ finds a battleground in the debate around what should be expected in educational spaces and how to determine if  those expectations have been met. A DPS alum pointed to the section of the amendment that states “that all public school students have ongoing and diverse opportunities to meaningfully participate in their education,” suggesting that the inclusion of this language may help insulate education in Colorado from attempts to downplay the importance of public schools. As he put it, “ the culture wars that are spreading across the US right now are attacking public education as a form of good. It [the proposed amendment] shows that education is not just learning one perspective but engaging in multiple perspectives, it’s all about critical thinking, problem solving and reasoning and not just memorizing one way to view the world.” Elevating education to the status of a fundamental right and defining the purpose and function of education might allow for students to have grounds to contest decisions which undermine their ability to develop a wider perspective.

In R2L’s most recent town hall, Professor Espinoza noted that the fight regarding the importance and purpose of education is a perennial struggle between those who view education as a luxury and those who view it as a necessity. As he put it, “we’re the champions of a universal human right, which puts us in a beautiful human tradition which goes back at the very least 75 years, and if we want to look at it further, it goes back thousands of years. People have long talked about what education means to the human person, how it’s a necessity, not a luxury.”

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