Rhode Island students sued for the right to civics lessons. Now they will ensure others benefit

Rhode Island students sued for the right to civics lessons. Now they will ensure others benefit

by Kio Herrera

This article was originally published at Prism.

On June 15, 2022, Rhode Island’s Department of Education reached an agreement with the plaintiffs of a class action lawsuit filed by parents and students claiming the state’s public schools had violated their constitutional rights by failing to adequately prepare students to be active and productive civic participants in society.

Cook v. McKee made its way through state courts and eventually to the First Circuit Court of Appeals over four years before being dismissed on the basis that civics education was not considered a constitutional right. The agreement will enable the 14 students named in the lawsuit, most of whom are now adults, to work with education officials in creating a task force that will help implement a civics curriculum throughout the state.

Up until the resolution, Rhode Island was one of 11 states that did not require any kind of civics education. At its core, civics education aims to teach citizens about their rights and responsibilities within government and society. In a classroom setting, students learn how governments function, which rights are awarded to individuals under the law, and how to participate in civic processes like sitting on a jury or voting for political candidates. Now, the student plaintiffs hope others will benefit from their efforts to renew interest in a crucial but long-neglected subject.

In 2018, 14 minors living in Rhode Island, most of them students of color or from immigrant backgrounds who attended the state’s public schools and ranging in age from 6 months to late teens, sued the state’s governor, education commissioner, and other state officials.

Their claims, filed in court documents, were an indictment of the state’s public school system’s failure to provide “adequate opportunities to develop the civic knowledge, skills, experiences, and values they need to function productively as civic participants.”

According to the official complaint filed in Rhode Island District Court, state officials “have failed to provide the named plaintiffs and tens of thousands of other students in the state of Rhode Island an education that is adequate to prepare them to function productively as civic participants capable of voting, serving on a jury, understanding economic, social, and political systems sufficiently to make informed choices, and to participate effectively in civic activities.”

The lawsuit argued that Horace Mann, a 19th-century education reformer and founder of the American public school system, said nearly 200 years ago that the main reason for public education was to ensure a republic democracy by preparing citizens to sufficiently carry out their social and civic duties.

In addition to rectifying decades of poor education, lawyers for the plaintiffs were also hoping to challenge a nearly 50-year-old Supreme Court ruling stating that a right to an education is not guaranteed in the constitution.

“When you look at what we rely upon in making our claim, that the U.S. Constitution implies a right to equitable and adequate public education, although the word education is not written into the Constitution, that it’s implied through a whole body of case law that has happened from Brown v. Board of Education,” said Jennifer Wood, the executive director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice and co-counsel on the class action lawsuit.

Civics in action

Wood believes civics education is more important than ever as the national conversation over what gets taught in classrooms becomes more divisive, especially when discussing the role of critical race theory in recent education debates.

“It’s hard to teach the history of the U.S. if you can’t talk about some of the central themes and issues in our legislative and constitutional history. What were the principles that were centered in the Revolutionary War? What were the issues around the removal of Indigenous people from their homes? How do we discuss the removal and incarceration of Japanese-American U.S. citizens [and Japanese residents] during World War II? So, as we develop a consensus around elevating the importance of history and civics instruction in the public schools, it’s unavoidable to confront these questions,” Wood said.

Wood said she also believes this case is a perfect example of how students empowered by grassroots organizing can successfully advocate for their academic needs.

“The big takeaway that I’ve learned is that when young people are activated to examine their own circumstances, identify lack of equity in their education, and then demand to change that, that is itself the biggest action civics project you can ever do,” Wood said.

Christopher R. Riano, the Center for Civic Education president, believes students must advocate for themselves in the structures that dictate their futures.

“Students are absolutely part of the puzzle because the more likely they are to be engaged in their governance structures in school, the more likely they are to be engaged in their communities and to run for public office as adults. It’s exactly how a democratic system like ours is designed to work,” Riano said.

Riano believes that youth participation in the democratic process should not be reserved solely for presidential elections but rather practiced daily. And he’s not alone. For years, experts have sounded the alarm about low voter participation rates and decreasing levels of civics proficiency in high school testing. In 2017, the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan political association of lawmakers, launched a civics education initiative after stating that the decline in civics education “leaves American democracy vulnerable.”

Michael Rebell, the lead counsel on the case and the executive director of the Center for Educational Equity at Columbia University, said he initially hoped to petition the Supreme Court after the case failed in the Court of Appeals. He added that the case was the “best losing case” he’d ever had because it had a viable chance of going before the Supreme Court and establishing a legal right to education in the constitution.

“The odds of being successful at petitioning the Supreme Court are never favorable, but nevertheless, we prepared the appeal, we had incredibly strong support, and we didn’t go into this lightly. This is not a liberal or conservative issue, and we believed this case was an opportunity to bring the country together under a positive decision,” Rebell said.

Securing a right to education

Establishing a right to education, however, would be an uphill battle in the federal court system. In the 1973 Supreme Court case San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the court ruled in a 5-4 decision that disparities in funds available to local school districts in Texas were not unconstitutional because education was not a fundamental right under the constitution.

In his dissent from the ruling, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote that the court had taken a step backward in securing equal educational opportunities for children in the U.S. Nearly 20 years before writing his dissent, Marshall defended Brown v. The Board of Education as a civil rights lawyer before the Supreme Court.

“I, for one, am unsatisfied with the hope of an ultimate ‘political’ solution sometime in the indefinite future while, in the meantime, countless children unjustifiably receive inferior educations that ‘may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone,’” Marshall stated in his dissent.

While access to public school education is a right, the constitution does not guarantee an education on its own. Nevertheless, for more than 50 years, cases relying on state law have tried to cement education as an unalienable right.

In 1981, a lawsuit filed on behalf of 20 New Jersey public school students challenged the state’s school funding system, claiming that it had failed to provide students in poor urban districts an adequate education. Abbott v. Burke eventually led to New Jersey implementing “Abbott schools” in low-wealth districts, which offer supplemental support to ensure students in 31 districts receive a “thorough and efficient” education.

More recently, in 2015, seven Minnesota families and a nonprofit organization filed a class action lawsuit against the state, claiming that their right to an education, guaranteed under state law, had been violated by the de facto segregation within the Saint Paul and Minneapolis public school systems. They argued that the system denied racial- and ethnic-minority children the right to equal educational opportunities. Three years later, in 2018, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in favor of the case moving forward in District Court. The case is still ongoing but stands a better chance of succeeding since it doesn’t rely on federal constitutional law.

One often cited federal case that was ultimately unsuccessful was litigated in Michigan in 2018. A Michigan federal district court judge dismissed a class action lawsuit filed by students in Detroit’s underperforming schools, citing a lack of resources like textbooks and pencils, proper heating during the winter, and pest-infested classrooms. Students also claimed the state had failed to provide “access to literacy,” leaving them unprepared to face life after high school. The final ruling, dismissing the case, stated that a “minimally adequate education” was not a guaranteed right under the U.S. Constitution.  

Shifting legal landscape

After four years of litigating the Cook v. McKee case and as the June 10 deadline to file the petition approached, Rebell said substantial changes in the ideology of the Supreme Court and the shift in cultural opinions about civics education made him uncertain about the outcome of the case.

Citing recent Supreme Court rulings, including the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, Rebell was not convinced the court would rule favorably in their case.

“Of course, the student plaintiffs were disappointed in the outcome, but this was the reality. A  Supreme Court decision on our case could’ve been dangerous. They might have used it as a springboard to decide something else that we never intended,” Rebell said.

Luckily for Rebell, while the case was still making its way through the courts, Rhode Island reappointed Angelica Infante-Green as education commissioner. The two had worked together while Infante-Green was New York City Education Department’s deputy commissioner on implementing civics education in the city’s public schools.

“We decided that a bird in the hand was better than dealing with the court,” Rebell said. “We contacted the commissioner and negotiated along with the plaintiff what we wanted to see in a settlement. We don’t give up easily. We got something good in Rhode Island even if we didn’t get the national positive response by going through the Supreme Court.”

Rebell emphasized that the best course to establish civic education and strengthen it as a legal right is through state courts, adding that he is currently working on similar cases that will be decided by the states.

Wood added that the lawsuit had been the longest running and likely the best civics lesson the students had received, but while successful, the students who first signed on to this lawsuit will not see its benefits.

“I think like 50 years from now,” Wood said, “the young people with whom I work in this case, they’re going to be the civics warriors and really trying to bring accountability to state actors and local education actors, who are not bringing equity in how they elevate civics as an important topic for young people.”

Kio Herrera is a reporter based in New York City. She is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she was a Toni Stabile Investigative Journalism Fellow. Her previous work focuses on education, criminal justice, and healthcare. Her reporting and research have appeared in the Center for Public Integrity, Centro de Periodismo Investigativo de Puerto Rico, The New Republic, and the Marshall Project.

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