If you think about it, you’ll remember that for more than forty years, school equity cases have been filed under the education clauses of the 50 state constitutions. That’s because, in a 1973 decision, San Antonio v. Rodriguez, the Warren Burger, U.S. Supreme Court decided that, because education is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, education is not protected as a fundamental right under the Fourteenth Amendment. But late last month a new federal lawsuit was filed, a case intended by the plaintiffs and their attorneys to establish that education is indeed a fundamental right, protected for all students by the U.S. Constitution.
The Associated Press’s Jennifer McDermott reports: “The Center for Educational Equity at Columbia University’s Teachers College and the Rhode Island Center for Justice filed the lawsuit. Michael Rebell, lead counsel and a professor at Teachers College said citizenship has always been the prime purpose of education in the United states and schools have increasingly failed to carry out this responsibility nationwide. Rhode Island, in particular, stands out because there is no requirement for students to take a civics course and no indication that teachers receive specialized training to teach the topic, among other issues, Rebell added. He said the case is timely because, ‘we’re living in troubled times, Our democratic institutions are being challenged like never before.'”
The NY Times‘ Dana Goldstein describes the goals of the plaintiffs: “The lawyers for the plaintiffs hope the case will have implications far beyond Rhode Island, and potentially prompt the Supreme Court to reconsider its 45-year-old ruling that equal access to a quality education is not a constitutionally guaranteed right. ‘Our real hope for reinvigorating our democratic institutions comes with the young people and the next generation,’ said Michael Rebell, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs. ‘What we’re really seeking is for the courts, especially the Supreme Court, to take a strong stance on getting back to first principles on what the school system was established for in the United States.'”
Michael Rebell is a seasoned attorney when it comes to educational equity. He was the lead council in the successful New York case of Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York. When, in a 2001 decision after several appeals, New York’s highest court ordered the state to invest more and distribute the funds more equitably, the Court defined civic preparation as a central purpose of public education. In a recent article for The Kappan, Rebell quotes that section of the New York court decision: “The purpose of public education today is to provide students the skills they need to ‘function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury.'”
Why did the Center for Educational Equity at Columbia University’s Teachers College partner with the Rhode Island Center for Justice to launch a federal lawsuit against Rhode Island? Besides that the state lacks any civics requirement in its curriculum and lacks as well any requirement that teachers receive training in this area, there is evidence that the state’s provision of education is particularly weak for its many English language learners. Dana Goldstein explains: “Beyond civics classes, the suit also argues that the state’s neediest children, particularly Latino immigrants and students with special needs, are failing to acquire the basic academic skills they need to effectively exercise their rights to free speech and voter participation. Among eighth grade English language learners in 39 states, those in Rhode island ranked last in math and second to last in reading on the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress.”
The lead plaintiff in the new case is Aleita Cook, a student at a Providence high school. For The Atlantic, Alia Wong describes the class-action lawsuit named for her: “The 14 plaintiffs in Cook v. Raimondo, all public school students or parents on behalf of their children, accuse the state of Rhode Island of providing an education so inferior that the state has failed to fulfill its duties under the U.S. Constitution. But given that there is no explicit guarantee of education in the Constitution, the lawyers are making a sort of bank-shot argument: that in denying citizens of Rhode Island a quality education, the state is, in essence, preventing people from exercising their constitutional rights…. That this denial falls unevenly across the population is a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which promises people equal protection under the law.”
In his recent piece in The Kappan, Michael Rebell himself makes the case for civics education in the context of over fifteen years of No Child Left Behind’s focus on basic literacy in two tested subjects— language arts and mathematics: “Civic participation—whether as voters, jurors, or people working together to make a change in the community—requires a working knowledge of many subjects, including history, politics, economics, science, and technology. The educational priorities established in the No Child Left Behind Act and now perpetuated in the Every Student Succeeds Act stress competency in basic literacy and mathematics, but not in civics, history, world languages, social studies, economics and the arts. Particularly in schools with constrained resources, what gets tested is what gets taught; the lower-priority status of civics, history, social studies, economics, and the arts in state accountability systems has meant that schools have substantially reduced the time students spend engaged in these areas. In the mid-20th century, three civics-related courses were common in high school: civics, problems of democracy, and American government. Today, civics and problems of democracy courses have largely disappeared. In many states, no civics courses at all are required; in others, the only mandate is for a one-semester course in American government.”
Writing this week on the importance of civic preparation in public schools, education law professor Derek Black also makes a strong case for increasing access to civics education: “Democracy is a double edged sword. It places political power in the hands of the people, but to succeed, those people need to be informed well enough to make smart decisions. An educated citizenry cannot be manipulated. Nor easily oppressed. An educated citizenry will guard its freedom jealously And when these citizens get it wrong—and they will—they will disagree with one another. And this slows down any major moves in the wrong direction. So the inherent tension of democracy revolves around the need to place power in the hands of people who may or may not be well-informed. Our founders—the people who wrote the federal and state constitutions we live under—firmly believed the only solution was to make sure we have a public education system that cultivates the skills that citizens need to participate in democracy.”