Amending Colorado’s Constitution

Educator perspective

By | Kenzie Kesselring

 

Right2Learn’s (R2L) initiative asks educators, parents, and advocates to pause and imagine how schools in Colorado could be if the right to an education rooted in human dignity and self-actualization was guaranteed in the Colorado Constitution. While there are already state laws to guarantee students attend school and federal policies to mitigate bias and discrimination in school, there are almost no details about a student’s right to an education in our state constitution. 

Researching R2L’s proposed amendment revealed to me the dynamic between the power of a state’s constitution and the most effective ways to achieve much-needed changes, particularly in regards to state institutions like the Colorado public education system. 

Even if R2L’s efforts are successful, the right to an education centered on dignity and respect for self and others cannot exist in Colorado until major reforms are made to the laws and policies that govern the education system from the school level all the way to the state level. 

Moreover, the language in the Colorado Constitution’s education clause is just one of many aspects of the education system that impact students and their families. They are also impacted by local, state, and federal laws that often leave many students and their families feeling unwelcome and disillusioned with public education. 

Updating centuries-old language in the Colorado Constitution could be a powerful launch for legislative changes, and R2L’s community-centered approach is much needed. The proposed amendment could empower legislators and Coloradans to pressure those in the government to increase funding for schools in the name of providing a dignified education for Colorado students. However, there appears to be little agreement on what exactly needs to be changed in schools to ensure the daily affirmation of student dignity alongside rigorous, culturally responsive academics

One community member viewed the lack of autonomy students have surrounding bathroom access and meal breaks as a violation of a student’s human rights. Another cited the poor quality of school meals as an important issue this amendment could resolve. 

As a special education program director and teacher, I view the massive academic achievement gap between schools in the Denver Public Schools District (DPS), the state’s largest school district, to be evidence of how the political and legal shortcomings in Colorado are leading to the painful inequities impacting our students. CBS News Colorado’s Anna Alejo analyzed the Spring 2023 Colorado Measure of Academic Success (CMAS) assessment data and found that DPS had one of the biggest achievement gaps based on race and income in the state. Alejo found that “nearly 50 percentage points separate[d] White students from Hispanic and Black students in literacy” proficiency.

Although state-wide standardized testing data does not tell the whole story, it is worth noting that districts in predominantly White neighborhoods and suburbs perform at a much higher level on these tests than their Black, Latinx, and Indigenous peers. This disparity in performance data shows that most White students in Colorado already receive a dignity-affirming education while other students in the state do not. It is vital to note that using standardized testing data as the sole indicator of academic success undermines the dignity of all students. However, higher test scores lead to more opportunities and choices for the future due to decades-old policies that shifted the focus in public education at all levels.   

The racial achievement gaps seen in DPS and other districts prove that the human dignity of all students is not being honored in our state’s educational institutions which further highlights the desperate need for education reform in Colorado. Any educational amendment to the state constitution must include details regarding how schools will affirm and elevate their students belonging to traditionally marginalized groups. Currently, R2L’s proposed amendment does not include such details or language. These reforms will be incredibly challenging to enact if we rely only on vaguely worded constitutional amendments. This amendment requires specificity as issues of disparities and indignities in education can only be reformed by directly calling out the injustices and the actions required to repair the harm that has been done. 

R2L’s efforts to collaborate with the community make clear that not everyone agrees on which human dignities are being violated in public schools, much less how. This amendment will be nothing more than words on a page without clarity on what changes are needed, and how they should be accomplished. However, I am confident R2L can get this well-intentioned proposal to a place where it includes these details and uses language rooted in justice and human rights.

For the reasons above, I cannot support R2L’s proposed amendment as it is currently written.  R2L’s goal of including language in the state constitution that affirms the right to an education for all Coloradans is commendable, but the lack of vision around what a dignity-affirming education looks like day-to-day in schools makes me question if this amendment is worth the effort when there are more urgent, pressing needs facing our students and schools right now. Between now and November, I will be paying close attention to the evolution of this proposition as I feel it has the potential to be the desperately needed catalyst for change across the Colorado public education system. 


Kenzie Kesselring is a Special Education teacher at a public charter school in Far Northeast Denver. She has an M.A. in Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Curriculum and Instruction from CU Denver and a B.A. in Journalism from Valdosta State University in South Georgia.

 

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