A.C. (Cook) v. McKee in Appellate Court

On Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston heard oral arguments in A.C. v. McKee. Our executive director, Michael A. Rebell, argued on behalf of 14 Rhode Island student plaintiffs that all students should be guaranteed a K-12 education that prepares them to carry out their civic responsibilities in a democracy.

The Center for Educational Equity and attorneys for the plaintiffs in this case have appreciated the outpouring of interest and support for the attempt to establish a right to education for civic preparation under the U.S. Constitution. The court will likely render a decision in the first half of 2022, and the next legal steps in our efforts to guarantee civic education will become clear at that time.

The case has also received a good deal of media attention. Hours before the hearing, The Boston Globe published a powerful op-ed by Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University. Minow, former dean of the Harvard Law School, also submitted an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs. 

The case has also been covered by ABC, the Associated Press, and the Boston Globe.

Below is a written summary of Rebell’s argument for the plaintiffs. You can also link to the full audio recording of the proceedings.

Summary of Plaintiffs’ Argument

This case is about the perpetuation of the constitutional values upon which the viability of our democratic system of government depends. And this is not hyperbole. The District Court strongly stated that “American democracy is in peril” and in 55 pages of eloquent prose described the peril and the importance of civic education in combating it. But, in the end, Judge Smith held that all that the Constitution guarantees to students is a minimum education, that is, basic reading and writing skills. We argue instead that the Supreme Court has said that students are entitled to a meaningful “quantum of education” that will prepare them to exercise important constitutional rights like the right to vote, free speech, and full participation in the political process. Reading and writing is a sine qua non, but much more is required.

We are asking the court to rule that some amount, some quantum of civic education, is required for students to exercise these constitutional rights. For example, media literacy is an absolute requirement to exercise constitutional rights in the 21st century. If you cannot distinguish erroneous from accurate information you are not in a position to vote effectively. You also need to acquire a certain amount of civic knowledge, civic skills, civic experiences, and civic values. That’s the core legal issue in this case…are kids entitled to some meaningful civic education that is going to prepare them to fully exercise their constitutional rights. 

Exactly what quantity of these skills and values, and which of them is most important, is a factual question for the district court to determine on remand. I think students need media literacy; I think they need a number of other things. But those are the points about which we have to present evidence to the district court and we’re prepared to do that.

Frankly, there was a tension between the strong statements the Supreme Court made in Brown regarding the paramount importance of education and their later holding in Rodriguez that education is not a fundamental interest under the Constitution. By saying in Rodriguez that there should be future consideration of what quantum of education is necessary to exercise important constitutional rights, the Court was trying to reconcile Brown and Rodriguez by carving out a subset of education that should be considered a fundamental right. Yes, this would be a statement of a new right, but it would not involve the micromanaging of the curriculum in Rhode Island. The state has the discretion under such a declaration of a right to determine the details, but needs to make it a priority, to say that civic education in the 21st century, when American democracy is in peril, is really important, and not treat it as less important than other subject, as Rhode Island does now. As the Supreme Court stated in Plyler, the American people have always regarded education and the acquisition of knowledge as a matter of supreme importance.