CEE and Co-Counsel Ask Federal Court to Reject Rhode Island’s Motions to Dismiss Federal Lawsuit Aimed at Establishing Right to Education for Civic Preparation

Last fall, 14 students from Providence and other Rhode Island school districts filed a major lawsuit asking the U.S. District Court to confirm the constitutional right of all public school students to a civic education that prepares them adequately to vote, 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, of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the citizens of each of the states a “republican” form of government.

Michael A. Rebell, executive director of the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University, is lead counsel in this test case, working with three Rhode Island attorneys. Rebell chose to bring the case in Rhode Island after he and students from Teachers College and Columbia Law School who participated in his “Schools, Courts and Civic Participation” seminar last year had closely examined the educational systems, legal precedents, and degree of community support in a number of states throughout the country and determined that Rhode Island would provide the best venue.

“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 defendants are the governor and legislative leaders as well as the commissioner of education and the state board of education. The attorney general, representing the governor and the legislative leaders, filed one brief, and the commissioner and the state board of education, who are represented by counsel for the commissioner and the board, filed a second brief. Both sets of defendants asked the court to dismiss the complaint, arguing, among other things, that the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1973, in San Antonio Independent School Board v. Rodriguez, that there is no right to education under the U.S. Constitution.

Plaintiffs’ 66-page brief, filed last week, countered that the Supreme Court specifically left open for decision at a later date the question of whether there may nevertheless be a right to a sufficient “quantum of education” to meaningfully exercise the rights to speak freely and to petition the government under the First Amendment, and the right to vote under the 15th Amendment. Plaintiffs are also asking the court to consider whether there is a right to education under the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment and the Republican Guarantee Clause, both of which have rarely been applied by the Supreme Court.

An amicus brief on behalf of leading national civic-education scholars was also filed by the firm of Debevoise & Plimpton to inform the court of the consensus of leading scholars, educators, policymakers, and research institutes throughout the country regarding the full range of knowledge, skills, experiences, and values that schools need to convey to students in order to prepare them to function productively as civic participants.

Oral argument on the motions is expected to take place this summer, before the Honorable William E. Smith, Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for Rhode Island, and a decision is expected to be rendered in the fall.


READ MORE ABOUT THE LAWSUIT IN THESE ARTICLES:                                                    NY TimesAre Civics Lessons a Constitutional Right? These Students Are Suing for Them           The AtlanticThe Lawsuit That’s Claiming a Constitutional Right to Education

Webinar: Do All New York Students Have Access to Essential Civic Learning Opportunities?

Participate in a Conversation on Creating a Roadmap to Equity in Civic Education

 Tuesday, May 28, 2019

3:30 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Advance registration required. Click here to register.

Far too many New York students leave school unprepared to participate in and shape our democracy, despite their constitutional right to an education that prepares them for effective civic engagement. It’s no surprise that, on average, these students are less likely to participate in civic and political life as adults.

On Tuesday, May 28, 3:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m., the DemocracyReady NY Coalition–convened by the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University–invites New York education stakeholders to participate in a free, interactive conversation exploring K-12 civic-education opportunity gaps as well as strategies to achieve statewide equity in civic learning.

New research findings from the Center for Educational Equity’s pilot study of selected New York high schools will ground the conversation in real-world examples of civic-education inequities across school types. And featured stakeholders–including a student, a teacher, a parent, and a school-boards representative–will share their perspectives and potential solutions.

Webinar participants will walk away with practical, action-oriented ideas on how to support and join the movement to ensure all New York students graduate high school fully prepared for effective civic participation.

Advance registration is required. Visit www.democracyreadyny.org to learn more and register. We look forward to your participation on the 28th!

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