CEE Executive Director Michael Rebell Files Federal Class Action Suit to Establish Right Under the U.S. Constitution to an Adequate Education to Prepare Young People for Full Civic Participation

The lawsuit, filed on November 29, 2018, in Providence, Rhode Island, is extremely timely. The Trump presidency and the midterm election campaigns have underscored troubling trends in our national politics: an increasingly polarized electorate, lack of focus on substantive policy, and widespread acceptance of one-sided, erroneous information.

Other disturbing trends have existed for decades. A low proportion of eligible voters actually go to the polls; the number of citizens who participate in local community activities has dramatically declined; and more Americans than ever are neglecting basic civic responsibilities, like jury service.

These worrisome developments raise serious questions about how well schools are carrying out one of their most critical responsibilities: to prepare citizens capable of safeguarding our democracy and stewarding our nation toward a greater realization of its democratic values. If schools are not preparing students to participate in the deliberative processes needed to make government work properly, then they are not meeting their obligations under the law.

“Most people think that students have a right to an adequate education under the U.S. Constitution,” said Michael Rebell, the lead counsel on the case and an education law professor and founding director of the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University. “Unfortunately, the federal courts have never held that there is such a right. Today, although it is more important than ever that the schools carry out their traditional responsibility to prepare all of their students to participate effectively in our democratic institutions, most schools are failing to do so.”

“A revitalization of American democracy will require the knowledgeable and committed engagement of the younger generation,” Rebell added. “This lawsuit asks the U.S. District Court in Rhode Island to make clear that all students in Rhode Island and throughout the United States have an enforceable constitutional right to an education that will truly prepare them to be capable civic participants in a democratic society.”

“I have attended the public schools in Rhode Island for my entire life and have not been exposed to how to engage sufficiently in critical thinking or even the basics of how to participate in democratic institutions,” said Musah Mohammed Sesay, a co-plaintiff and senior at Classical High School in Providence. “It is only through my work with advocacy organizations outside of school that I have become aware of what is missing from my preparation in school for adult life as a fully engaged member of the community.”

The lawsuit asks the federal court to confirm the constitutional right of all public school students to a civic education that prepares them adequately to vote, to exercise free speech, petition the government, actively engage in civic life and exercise all of their constitutional rights under the 14th Amendment, and under Article 4, section 4, which requires the federal government to guarantee each of the states a “republican” form of government.

Young people equipped with the necessary knowledge, skills, and experiences, recognize their civic agency and exercise their civic powers to work for meaningful social change. Unfortunately, too many schools, particularly ones that serve students in poverty and students of color, are ill equipped to provide this type of education, even though the U.S. Supreme Court and 32 state supreme courts have explicitly stated that preparation for capable citizenship is a primary purpose of education.


NY Times: Are Civics Lessons a Constitutional Right? These Students Are Suing for Them

The Atlantic: The Lawsuit That’s Claiming a Constitutional Right to Education


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