Federal Court Holds There Is a Fundamental Right to Education Under the U.S Constitution

On April 23rd, the U.S Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued a landmark decision in the Gary B. v. Whitmer case, holding that there is a “fundamental right to a basic minimum education” under the U.S. Constitution. The two-to-one decision of the three-judge panel defined the right in terms of “access to literacy.”
Students in very low performing schools in Detroit brought the case. They claim that—due to the absence of qualified teachers, crumbling facilities, and insufficient materials— the conditions in their schools are so bad students leave school virtually illiterate. As the decision states, “Plaintiffs sit in classrooms where not even the pretense of education takes place, in schools that are functionally incapable of delivering access to literacy.” Because of this, these students attend “schools in name only, characterized by slum-like conditions and lacking the most basic educational opportunities that children elsewhere in Michigan and throughout the nation take for granted.”
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court ruling that had dismissed the case. The court held there is a “fundamental right to a basic minimum education” that provides access to literacy as a matter of “substantive due process” under the Fourteenth Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that a fundamental right for substantive due process must be “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” Accordingly, the Sixth Circuit discussed in detail the history of education in the United States, especially at the time of the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court also relied on the precedent of the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that single-sex marriage was a fundamental right as a matter of substantive due process.
This is the first time a court has asserted a federal right to education. In 1973, in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that education is not “a fundamental interest” entitled to strict scrutiny analysis under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (although the Court emphasized in the same decision that “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments,” as it had previously held in Brown v. Board of Education). Even though the Texas system of educational finance provided the plaintiff students only half the per-capita funding that students in a neighboring, more affluent district received, the Supreme Court deemed this a “rational” state policy because it promoted local control of education.
In the nearly 50 years since Rodriguez, a number of cases have sought to distinguish and limit the scope of that ruling, but none has succeeded prior to this major pronouncement from the Sixth Circuit.
The Gary B. case has been remanded to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District in Michigan for a trial and further proceedings. Governor Whitmer and the other defendants have not yet indicated whether they intend to appeal the Sixth Circuit’s ruling.
For procedural reasons, the Sixth Circuit did not decide the claims plaintiffs had raised under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. That issue may be decided by the U.S. District Court for Rhode Island where a decision is currently pending in Cook v. Raimondo, another case seeking to establish a right to education under the U.S. Constitution. The main argument asserted by the Cook plaintiffs is that, in the Rodriguez decision, the Supreme Court left open the question of whether there is a right to the “quantum of education” students need to exercise “meaningfully” important constitutional rights like the right to vote, to serve on a jury, to exercise free speech, and to participate in political activities.
Michael A. Rebell, executive director of the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College and lead attorney for the plaintiffs in Cook v. Raimondo, said:
We applaud the outcome of the Gary B. case, which may bring important relief to students in Detroit. Nevertheless we are concerned about the narrow scope of the right to education as defined by the Sixth Circuit opinion. We are hopeful that Judge Smith  in Rhode Island will declare that under the Equal Protection Cause, or other constitutional provisions, students have a fundamental right to a more robust and meaningful education—one that provides the knowledge, skills, experiences, values, and civic integration necessary to prepare them to function effectively as civic participants in a democratic society.


Building Impact: A Closer Look at Local Cross-Sector Collaborations for Education

An extensive study of collective impact, community schools, and other comprehensive educational opportunity initiatives in eight cities concludes they are a calming force and “show promise.”

For the past four years, CEE Executive Director Michael A. Rebell and Policy and Research Director Jessica R. Wolff, together with two faculty colleagues at Teachers College, Carolyn J. Riehl and Jeffery R. Henig, have been working on a major study of broad, multi-sector collaborations for education that can involve government, schools, business, universities, foundations and nonprofits. The final report of this important project, which was supported by The Wallace Foundation, has now been released.

In addition to the full report, the authors have prepared an executive summary and a longer overview of the study and discussion of key findings.

While collaborations of this kind have existed for more than 100 years, collective impact has in recent years attracted attention nationwide as communities try to tackle problems that are too complex for any one institution to solve on its own. Despite the growing interest, however, there has been little research on contemporary forms of cross-sector collaboration.

Although they face a number of challenges, “current collaborations show promise for creating a new kind of venue to bring local partners together who often have not cooperated in the past and have even been in conflict,” the authors say. “Importantly, most of the collaborations we studied seem to have helped calm often-contentious urban education politics and establish enough stability for partners to move forward.”

The report is the third and final in a series, presenting findings from comparative case studies of eight such initiatives across the country. Between 2015 and 2017, researchers took an in-depth look at three collaborations—All Hands Raised in Multnomah County, OR; Milwaukee Succeeds; and Say Yes Buffalo—and a more limited look at five others (Alignment Nashville, Chatham-Savannah Youth Futures Authority, Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis, Oakland Community Schools, and Providence Children and Youth Cabinet). They visited each city one or more times to observe meetings and other activities and interview participants and stakeholders.

The report takes a comprehensive look at the components of collective impact, from funding to data use to strategic relationships. Among the many findings are the following:

  • Collaborations need a credible and compelling rationale, as well as committed advocates, to get started.
  • Collaborations can serve as venues for advocating for and developing a “cradle-to-career” vision of education, even when the resources to carry out that vision aren’t fully in place.
  • Most of the studied collaborations assigned leadership responsibilities to local elites and used a variety of venues to keep community members informed and engaged.
  • Supporting a “backbone” organization to coordinate among the various players is a primary expense of collaboration.
  • Collaborations seem to be helped, not hindered, by efforts to gather and use data, despite a range of obstacles, including privacy concerns and uncertainty about which metrics to use.
  • Affiliation with national networks gives collaborations access to strategic ideas, program guidelines, technical support, and some funding opportunities.
  • Some collaborations take a “colorblind” approach, directing resources to students who need them without explicitly focusing on specific groups; others directly take on racial inequality and class disparities.

The Center for Educational Equity was an early leader of work on cross-sector collaborations to provide comprehensive educational opportunity; our writing and teaching in this area began over ten years ago. Some of our contributions including history, theory, and legal research, can be found here.

The Daily Show with Trevor Noah Features CEE’s Federal Lawsuit to Establish U.S. Constitutional Right to Education for Civic Preparation

There’s nothing funny about the violation of children’s educational rights, especially when those rights relate to students’ preparation to participate in and help shape our democracy as active and effective civic participants.

That said, we think you’ll both laugh at and learn from this brand-new The Daily Show with Trevor Noah episode featuring Cook v. Raimondo, the federal lawsuit filed by Center for Educational Equity executive director Michael Rebell last fall.

Trevor Noah_Rebell and Young-White conversation

The Daily Show correspondent/comedian Jaboukie Young-White sat down with Michael Rebell as well as high school students Aleita Cook and Musah Mohammed Sesay, two of the lead plaintiffs who are standing up for all students whose civic-education rights have been violated.


Trevor Noah_Aleita and Musa_sq
Summary of Cook v. Raimondo

In addition to this national legal effort, the Center for Educational Equity is leading a number of state-level initiatives focused on policy development, research, and public engagement to advance students’ educational rights.

Cook v. Raimondo was filed in the U.S. District Court in Providence, Rhode Island, 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. Oral argument on plaintiffs’ and defendants’ recent 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.


Why New York Families’ Legal Victory for Educational Rights and Resources Is Still in the Courts

The legal history of educational equity in New York State, from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) case to current legal efforts to compel the state government to honor students’ rights, has never been told–until now.

On June 12th, Center for Educational Equity (CEE) executive director Michael Rebell testified before the New York State Advisory Committee of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which is preparing to issue a report on equity and funding in New York. As lead counsel in the CFE lawsuit and–in his independent, pro bono capacity–as co-counsel for the families and organizations who in 2014 filed the follow-up suit, New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights (NYSER), Rebell is exceptionally qualified to tell that story. And although CEE, as a part of Teachers College, is not participating in the NYSER lawsuit, the core aims of that endeavor align with our vision of educational equity and justice, and we believe that all education stakeholders should be aware of it.

The CFE case began in 1993, 26 years ago, and yet, today, as both research and the lived experiences of families affected by educational-rights violations show, students throughout our state, particularly those living in poverty and those who are Black or Brown, are still not receiving even the basic learning opportunities to which they are entitled.

Needless to say, that has major implications, not only for the young people themselves but for the kind of society we live in and whether we will one day live up to our stated values of liberty, equality, and justice for all. But, as they say, in order to get where we’re going, we have to know where we’ve been.

CLICK HERE to read “A History of New York State’s Failure to Meet Constitutional Requirements for Providing All Students the Opportunity for a Sound Basic Education.”

Resources and Readiness: Exploring Civic Education Access and Equity in Six New York High Schools

Pilot Study Report Cover Image

This new report from the Center for Educational Equity offers insights into the resources and practices necessary to prepare students for civic participation in accordance with students’ constitutional rights. The pilot study on which the report is based documented major disparities in learning opportunities among the study schools, including in the following areas: (1) quality, up-to-date history, civics, and government courses; (2) experiential learning opportunities in and outside of the classroom; and (3) access to a full basic curriculum. 


Preparing future generations for their civic roles in a democracy has historically been an essential purpose of schooling in the United States. In most states, including New York, preparation for civic participation is also central to the right to education, afforded to all students by the state constitution. 

New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, ruled in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) case that the state government has a constitutional obligation to provide all students “the opportunity for a sound basic education ” that prepares them to “function productively as civic participants.” It further held that adequate resources for that purpose must be available in every school.

New York State is poised to be a leader in this area. The Board of Regents (the state’s top education policy-making body) and the State Education Department have taken important steps to elevate New York schools’ civic mission. They included “civic readiness” among the measures of student performance to be used for school accountability and support in their federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan that was approved in January 2018. In September 2018, they established a statewide Civic Readiness Task Force. 

However, efforts to understand and promote civic readiness have not explored the school-level specifics–that is, the extent to which individual schools are or are not equipped to provide the learning opportunities needed for civic preparation and how access to necessary resources and practices varies across schools. These details establish key reference points for families, educators, school officials, and policymakers who want to understand the relationship of civic learning opportunities to outcomes and to develop and advocate for more effective and equitable civic-learning practices.

In 2017, the Center for Educational Equity decided to take a closer look. Through in-depth interviews with educators, among other sources of information, our researchers compared three typical New York City high schools and three suburban high schools in the New York City metro area, obtaining insights into the resources and practices necessary to prepare students for civic participation, and explored the extent to which these and other learning opportunities were actually available in each school. 

We found disparities among our schools in many of the civic learning areas we examined, including

  • Disparities in access to quality, up-to-date history, civics, and government courses;
  • Disparities in access to experiential learning opportunities in and outside of the classroom; and
  • Disparities in access to a full basic curriculum.

This research suggests trends and issues that should be tested and explored through further research with a larger, fully representative sample of public schools, including elementary and middle schools as well as schools in rural schools and small cities.

The broad disparities in civic learning opportunities also suggest the need for statewide public dialogue to develop a shared understanding of the civic competencies that students must develop and the civic learning opportunities that students must be provided.

We hope this study contributes to that effort by advancing an understanding of how to ensure that all schools can prepare students to be civic ready.

Please email us at equity@tc.columbia.edu and let us know how you decide to use these resources and tools.

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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Fact Sheet: Foundation Aid and the Requirements of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity Decision

Governor Andrew Cuomo, in a speech laying out his 2019 legislative priorities, has called the 2007 Foundation Aid formula and the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) lawsuit “ghosts of the past and distractions from the present.”

That statement is incorrect. Here are the core facts:

1. In 2003 and again in 2006, the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, held that the state’s education-funding system then in effect was unconstitutional.

2. To remedy the constitutional defects, the Court held that the State must “align funding with need,” and that, in order to do so, it must determine “the actual cost” of providing the opportunity for a “sound basic education” and ensure that “every school” has sufficient resources to provide such an opportunity.

3. Former Governor Eliot Spitzer, who was in office at the time the Foundation Aid formula was adopted, described the process and his intent and that of the legislature at the time as follows: 

The Foundation Aid formula was proposed and enacted as a direct result of the CFE litigation. As contentious as school funding debates had often been, there was agreement that Foundation Aid was a principled and constitutionally mandated step forward. The Republican Senate majority said the Foundation Aid formula fulfilled “the mandate of the Court of Appeals decision in CFE vs. The State of New York,” and the Democratic Assembly leadership said it “addresses the court-ordered requirements of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit.”
The new formula responded to the Court of Appeals’ order that the state “align funding with need” based upon the “actual costs” of providing a “sound basic education.” The new Foundation Aid formula calculated these actual costs and recognized that the programs and services needed by students who are economically disadvantaged, those with disabilities, and English language learners are often more costly. 

4. The Foundation Aid formula was intended to be phased in over a four-year period, beginning in 2007. It was appropriately funded in 2007-08 and 2008-09; however, following the 2008 recession, the State first froze further increases and then drastically reduced the amount of education funding, ignoring the requirements of the Foundation Aid formula.

5. Since Gov. Cuomo took office, the State has been increasing education funding on an ad hoc, year-to-year basis, while continuing to ignore the specific requirements of the Foundation Aid formula.

6. At the present time, the gap between current levels of state aid and the amounts called for by the Foundation Aid formula is approximately $4 billion.

7. The Foundation Aid formula is still on the statute books (Ed. Law § 3602). No alternative formula that would meet CFE requirements has been adopted by the State, and the Governor and the Legislature are still legally obligated to provide the full funding amounts called for by the Foundation Aid formula.

8. The State’s failure to fund the Foundation Aid formula fully has led individual parents from New York City and school districts around the state, as well as a number of major statewide educational organizations, to file a new lawsuit, New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights (“NYSER”) v. State of New York. The NYSER case (www.nyser.org) is now pending in the State Supreme Court, New York County.

9. In 2017, rejecting the State’s motion to dismiss the NYSER case, the Court of Appeals made clear that the CFE requirements are still very much in effect and that they will be enforced by the courts:

Our CFE decisions establish that “[t]here is a constitutional floor with respect to educational adequacy . . . [and the courts] are responsible for adjudicating the nature of [the duty to provide a sound basic education].

NYSER v. State of New York, 29 N.Y. 3d 501, 505 (2017).

10. In its 2017 decision, the Court sent the case back to the lower court for a trial that will allow the NYSER plaintiffs to present evidence as to whether the current amounts of state aid are insufficient to provide students in New York City and other districts throughout the state the opportunity to a “sound basic education” to which they are entitled under the state constitution. The parties are now preparing for the trial.

11. The evidence in the NYSER case may establish that even more than the amounts called for by the 2007 Foundation Aid formula are required in 2019 to meet current constitutional requirements; however, pending a final decision from the Court of Appeals, the State is required to provide the amounts of funding called for by the 2007 Foundation Aid formula, the only formula it has ever adopted that was calculated in accordance with the constitutional mandate to base state aid on the “actual cost” of providing all the students the opportunity for a sound basic education.

The views and conclusions expressed here are those of the Center for Educational Equity and do not necessarily reflect those of Teachers College.


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


Cook v. Raimondo Complaint


“Educate to unify: The urgent need for better civic education in our dangerously divided nation” (NY Daily News – October 7, 2018)



Never Again, the activist gun control movement initiated last February by students who survived the Parkland school shooting, has had an enormous impact. Major gun retailers have stopped selling assault rifles and raised the age for buying guns. Major corporations have ended discounts for NRA members. The march to Washington, D.C. that these students organized in March generated massive national support.

One of these students testified at the Senate confirmation hearings regarding the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Whether these efforts lead to meaningful gun control legislation remains to be seen.

Nonetheless, these teenagers have captivated the country with their political sophistication, media savvy and civic commitment.

But their advocacy forces a pointed question: Since the Columbine High School tragedy in 1999, there have been at least 38 recorded shootings resulting in fatalities at American secondary schools. Why, then, have the survivors of the Parkland shootings been the first to take dramatic civic action to stop the carnage in America’s schools?

The answer is that Stoneman Douglas High School has a rich array of robust debate, journalism, drama and other civic enrichment activities that the vast majority of other high schools throughout the country manifestly lack.

The fact is that in recent decades, America’ public schools have largely failed to carry out their core traditional responsibility to prepare young people to be good citizens, capable of safeguarding our democratic values. It’s a crisis that has caught up to us in many ways, and one we must work hard to reverse lest our representative government fall apart in future generations.

For America’s founders, preparing young people to be capable citizens was the primary reason to establish a public school system.

Harvard historian Alan Taylor summarized the founders’ perspective as follows: “Schools needed to produce well-informed protectors of republican government. ‘If the common people are ignorant and vicious,’ [Benjamin] Rush” — one of the leading Revolution-era thinkers on schooling — “concluded, ‘a republican nation can never be long free.’”

High school graduates today, however, are ignorant of basic facts about governmental institutions and the functioning of a democratic political system.

On the civics exam administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) (known as “the nation’s report card”) in 2014, only 23% of a national sample of 18-year-olds performed at or above a “proficient” level.

The depth of ignorance that these scores reflect are illustrated by surveys that reveal that fewer than one-third of eighth graders could identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and fewer than half of Americans could name the three branches of government.

Many students also lack a grounding in history and social studies that can provide them the perspectives they need to deliberate thoughtfully about political and social issues.

A particularly disturbing recent study on democratic values found that when asked to rate on a scale of one to 10 how “essential” it is for them “to live in a democracy,” 72% of those born before World War II chose 10, the highest value, but among millennials, only about 30% accorded maximal importance to living in a democracy.

The 2016 presidential election campaign and events since have also underscored troubling trends in the present state of our democracy that clearly can be traced to the decline in civic education in our schools: the dismissal of people with opposing views; the failure of many voters to focus on substantive policy issues; and the widespread acceptance and circulation of one-sided and factually erroneous information.

Other disturbing civic trends have been present for decades: the proportion of eligible voters who actually vote is substantially lower than in almost all other developed countries; the number of citizens who actively participate in local community activities has dramatically declined; and Americans are increasingly neglecting basic civic responsibilities like jury service.

Many interrelated factors have contributed to the lack of adequate civic preparation in the schools. They include:

A loss of faith in traditional institutions, stemming in part from their failure to respond adequately to the rights articulated and expectations raised by the civil rights era, and to the inequities that have resulted from globalization and automation;

The tendency of many schools, particularly those serving large numbers of students in poverty and students of color, to focus on basic reading and math to the detriment of the humanities, social studies, civics, and the development of higher-order thinking skills and habits of mind;

The rapid spread of the use of new media, among students and adults, and the slower pace of skill-building to use them critically and responsibly;

Teacher and administrator reluctance to foster classroom discussion of current events and controversial issues;

The virtual abandonment of professional training of teachers in civics education;

The inability of many schools to provide and promote experiential learning opportunities, the arts, extracurricular activities, and internships that develop interpersonal skills and foster civic agency and empowerment; and

Inequitable and inadequate funding, especially for schools that serve large numbers of students in poverty, both in urban and rural areas.

Despite these extensive shortcomings, however, schools, especially public schools, continue to be the only places in our society in which people from diverse political and social backgrounds come together in a setting where rational discussion and understanding of differing views can be prized and rewarded.

Preparing future citizens for meaningful civic engagement in the 21st century will require schools to take advantage of their inherent potential for carrying out this critical task and to adopt approaches that recognize current political, social, economic and cultural realities.

Can this be done? Most scholars and educators who are concerned about these issues agree that effective preparation of students for civic participation requires schools to provide sufficient access to learning experiences that foster (1) basic civic knowledge in government, history, law and democracy; (2) verbal and critical analytical skills that can be applied to texts ranging from historical documents to blog posts and tweets; (3) social and participatory experiences; and (4) responsible character traits and understanding of democratic values and dispositions.

To enable and motivate schools to put these principles into effect, policymakers at both the federal and state levels must stop paying lip service to civic education and make it a front-burner priority.

They must apply accountability standards that emphasize preparation for citizenship and adopt education reforms that will ensure the availability in all schools of an appropriate range of extracurricular activities and experiential opportunities and emphasize the development in all students of critical analytic skills and civic responsibility.

Thus far, however, despite numerous calls for more emphasis on civic education, and dozens of specific feasible proposals on how schools might be more effective in preparing students for effective civic participation in contemporary times, states and schools by and large have not made education for capable citizenship a significant priority.

Policymakers and educators speak broadly about the importance of civic education, but they have proved unwilling to implement the major reforms that are needed and to infuse the resources that are necessary to prepare our students effectively for civic participation.

The leverage necessary to turn this situation around may require a strong stimulus from outside the usual educational policy arena. It may, in fact, require the intervention of the judiciary.

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that schools are where the “fundamental values necessary for the maintenance of a democratic political system” are conveyed, and 32 state supreme courts have explicitly stated that preparation for capable citizenship is a primary purpose or the primary purpose of the education clause of their state constitutions.

For example, the New York Court of Appeals has held that the “opportunity for a sound basic education” that the state constitution guarantees to all students requires the schools to provide all students an education that “prepares them to function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury.”

The courts have not, however, acted on their pronouncements by issuing decisions or orders that would require states to ensure that schools can carry out their civic education responsibilities effectively.

If we’re going to meet this crisis, there’s an ingrained ideological problem we must simultaneously confront. One of the major reasons for the contemporary neglect of civic preparation in the schools is that policymakers and school officials have discouraged or even barred teachers from dealing with controversial issues.

Some parents balk at the possibility that their children will be indoctrinated. And teachers also feel that they have not been trained in how to teach students to apply critical analytic skills to their use of the internet and social media.

The continuing political polarization that plagues our society is likely to perpetuate these trends.

But we can’t be afraid to wade into these waters any longer. If students are to receive the civic knowledge, skills, experiences and values that they will need to be capable citizens who are responsive to the contemporary challenges to our democratic system, we must do better.

Which means, among other things, that the courts must start playing a more active role in requiring the schools to carry out their constitutional responsibilities. Judicial declarations of rights and responsibilities in this area can inspire and induce policymakers and educators to prepare their students to confront and surmount the serious challenges to democratic functioning that our students — and all Americans — face today.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter recently said, “Civic education reform is, literally, essential to the continued vitality of American Constitutional government as we know it.”

It is time that his colleagues who are currently on the bench take these words to heart and require state policymakers to take seriously their constitutional responsibilities to prepare students to be knowledgeable and engaged citizens.

Rebell is a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School. He is the author of “Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts and Civic Participation,” and is currently preparing a federal lawsuit regarding the schools’ responsibilities to prepare all students for capable citizenship.