Amending Colorado’s Constitution

By | Allan Tellis, Chief Writer, Denver

 



Concepts like fundamental rights and dignity often seem deeply abstracted from the day-to-day operations of educational institutions.  The Right2Learn Dignity Lab wants to advocate not only for developing a more robust understanding of the concepts themselves but also having our lived experience of education reflect our commitment to these ideas. In fact, according to Right2Learn, (R2L for short) a 17-year-old organization dedicated to studying education and dignity, updating the state’s constitution is a pivotal step in ensuring that all citizens of the state receive a quality education. Although the state’s current educational clause was progressive for the late nineteenth century, members of R2L believe the constitution should be updated to reflect a modern understanding of the relationship between rights, education and human dignity. The current clause articulates the state’s obligation to provide access to public schools for a set amount of time throughout the year but remains inadequate because it does not provide a robust understanding of the purpose and importance of education. 

Perhaps most importantly, unlike Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the educational clause in Colorado’s constitution does not explicitly state that education is a fundamental right which is critical for the full development of a human being. 

As one of the authors of the amendment put it at a recent community town hall, “there are a couple things that are a problem with the current education clause. One thing that’s absent is that education is not recognized as a fundamental right, it is certainly some kind of state service, a public good of some sort, something certainly above food stamps, certainly above trash removal, but nothing close to what it means to have a fundamental right. [Being] a fundamental right means that a right is necessary for the continuation of freedom and justice in our country. We have come to the conclusion after years of study that the central problem, the thing that’s holding back public education in the state of Colorado, is the educational clause.” Although there are not many examples of constitutional language regarding education that reflect this commitment, there are some examples in states like Florida and Kentucky of education being presented as a fundamental commitment and value. 

Tania Soto Valenzuela, director of the Right2Learn Dignity Lab, suggests framing education as a mere public service and schools as places where children just learn basic skills misrepresents what schools can and should be. As she put it, “school is much more than that… it’s where we unfold as human beings, it’s where we learn about our responsibilities and duties as members of our society and with the pandemic we’ve really realized how much people at schools have to do and provide for our students and we want that to be reflected in our constitution. We know that education is a fundamental right; it is a thing that makes or breaks a person.”

Valenzuela pointed to the ruling in Lobato v. Colorado (2013) as an example of the consequences of not having a more robust articulation of the right to education present in the state’s constitution. The case was an attempt to adjudicate the concern that students in Colorado were being fundamentally robbed of their constitutional right to an education due to the level of spending on education in the state of Colorado. Colorado has long teetered near the bottom of educational spending often coming in near the bottom 10 of states. In the end, the court ruled that the current level of spending did not constitute a violation of rights, and pointed to the spending on education relative to other critical social services in the state as part of the justification for their ruling. However, the court did not suggest its ruling should be thought of as a justification for the spending habits of Colorado, in fact, the court was quite critical of the state of affairs regarding education. They did however believe that the courts were not the venue to address these shortcomings and suggested that such problems needed to be addressed in the legislature. 

Valenzuela believes that without this constitutional amendment, the claim that students are getting less than they deserve will continue to be stifled by the fact that higher standards are not currently undergirded by constitutional law. They hope by amending the constitution they can provide the citizens with the protections necessary to ensure the right to education does not function as a vague commitment to simply keeping the lights on. As Valenzuela put it,  “When we pass this amendment that is recognizing the universal right to education, what we’re really recognizing is that the human being has the right to learn and to grow and to do so in harmony with one another.”

The language in the new amendment is designed to reflect the need for educational environments to be spaces where human dignity is affirmed and not denied. For instance, in presenting the new amendment to a group of community members, a co-author of the amendment framed it this way,  “our education clause is based on the enduring inalienable and universal quality of human dignity and no matter what it is that happens in the society there is no way whatsoever to take away a person’s dignity. Now whether that person has the experience of dignity is another matter.” As modern humans, we have to spend a tremendous amount of time in formal educational spaces and much of this time occurs during some of our most vulnerable and formative years. For the members of Right2Learn, it is critical that these spaces function to affirm our dignity during these critical moments of development and growth. 

Fortunately, in the state of Colorado, citizens can craft legislation themselves and get a proposition on the ballot if they are able to collect enough signatures from each senate district in the state. In this case, Right2Learn has crafted language with their team and has presented the potential constitutional amendment to a variety of community groups including, but not limited to lawmakers, students, and educational professionals. 

Gathering the needed signatures to have this appear on the ballot will however be no easy feat. Right2Learn has to make the content digestible and understandable for potential signees, and they must also be able to create momentum all throughout the state of Colorado. 

Not only do members of the organization have to campaign in all parts of the state, simply printing the needed materials alone will cost the group around $10,000. They have begun the process of collecting signatures and growing public awareness and support in the Denver Metro Area, as that is where many of the group’s members are located; they will soon have to do the legwork of expanding outwards if they hope to accomplish their goal in the short term. 

Beyond the logistical difficulties, moving outwards in the state may present challenges in terms of finding support in areas with a sparser concentration of citizens with such a progressive view on the nature of education; people who don’t see a need for the constitution to guarantee any more than it already does. However, despite the swirling controversies regarding the future of education, Right2Learn believes that there will be widespread support for the ballot measure because many Colorado citizens will understand the importance of affirming the human dignity 

of every child by asserting that education is a fundamental right. One community member at a recent town hall thought this effort would be able to overcome much of the political and ideological tension that exists between the state’s urban and rural areas. As he put it, “I would think in some of these rural districts, like in the eastern plains and stuff where education may not be as well funded and people are discouraged by that, I think they would support something like this because it would allow their child, no matter what nationality they are, to get a proper education.”

Beyond the legal change that occurs by amending the Constitution, the group hopes this pursuit can fuel a needed cultural shift.  As Valenzuela put it, “a lot of what we’re trying to do is based on a cultural change, we have to see education as more than a service… it really has to shift into us understanding education as this actualization and hub for potential and a hub for us to explore all of capabilities so it really is making that cultural shift to how we view education and what it does for us.” By raising awareness about their desired constitutional changes through their ongoing community discussions, Rght2learn hopes to provide community members an opportunity to ascertain the material implications of taking these ideas seriously.

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.

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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