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 THE LEGAL COMPLAINT AND THE BRIEFS ON THE MOTIONS TO DISMISS: www.cookvraimondo.info
READ MORE ABOUT THE LAWSUIT IN THESE ARTICLES: 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