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.

Inadequate Educational Funding and Its Burden

It is the duty of the state to provide schools with adequate resources so they may, in turn, provide their students with the basic supplies needed to foster academic success. Unfortunately, in Arizona and in many states that do not provide adequate resources to schools, members of the school community are burdened with this responsibility.

Districts in Arizona say the state does not provide them with enough money to cover the cost of things like paper, facial tissues, and dry-erase markers. Arizona’s failure to provide the basic supplies for schools results from its inadequate educational funding and places a financial strain on parents and teachers.

Despite the fact that Arizona law requires that public schools provide supplies required for academic success, parents in many schools in Arizona are asked by teachers to buy supplies for the classroom. This is not only a displaced responsibility from the state to parents, but it also can cause a financial burden for the families of the 600,000 students in Arizona that qualify for free or reduced lunches (an indicator of students’ financial disadvantage).

Teachers in Arizona — like most teachers throughout the nation — are also using their resources to cover the cost. The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics found 94 per cent of teachers spent their own money on supplies in 2014. Those teachers spent an average of nearly $500 without reimbursements, according to the report.

Read more about the consequences of inadequate funding for Arizona’s public schools.

Reinvigorating Civics Education in NY — Conference Recap

In New York, the state’s highest court 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 for productive civic participation and competitive employment. This means every school must be equipped to help all students develop the knowledge, skills, and habits they need to be effective civic participants when they graduate from high school.

Last fall, the Center for Educational Equity launched a multi-faceted educational-rights initiative focused on strengthening students’ preparation for civic participation here in New York and nationally. Since then, we have been working diligently with colleagues and collaborators throughout the state to fill critical knowledge gaps through research, develop legal strategies, engage the public, and build a coalition to advance a common policy agenda.

Key components of that work were on display at our May 23rd Reinvigorating Civics Education in New York joint conference with Generation Citizen, which we hosted here at Teachers College. That day, a richly diverse convening of stakeholders explored New York’s civics-education landscape through solution-oriented dialogue on how to reinvigorate civics education in our schools, boost civic-engagement pathways beyond the classroom, and realize New York students’ constitutional right to civic preparation.






Important insights and recommendations presented that day included those of leading state education policymakers Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and Deputy Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green, school-based educators and administrators, legislative analysts and advocates, and our own TC President Susan Fuhrman and education-law scholar and CEE executive director Michael Rebell.

But it was the experiences and expertise of local students, our young civic leaders whose valuable ideas are so often excluded from education-policy conversations, that most inspired many conference participants. Not only were young people represented on each panel, students also delivered the opening and closing remarks.

Click here to watch the videos, and stay tuned for additional opportunities to join us as we join forces with other outstanding partners around the state to strengthen civics education for all New York students!

Now Available! Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts, and Civic Participation

On this day when students around the country are speaking out for social change, we should focus on the important role that schools need to play in preparing all students to function productively as civic participants. People across the political spectrum believe that all students should receive a meaningful opportunity to develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that they need to be capable civic participants, including the belief in their ability to effect change.

FDHow can we make sure that all schools, including schools attended primarily by students in poverty and students of color, are equipped to provide the resources, services, and supports to make this happen?

Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts, and Civic Participation, the new book by Michael A. Rebell, professor of educational law and practice and executive director of the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University, addresses this critical question.

Flunking Democracy is the first publication from CEE’s new educational-rights project on preparing students for civic participation. In it, Rebell makes the case that, for generations now, most public schools in the United States have moved away from one of the fundamental purposes of public education—preparing students to become capable citizens. This trend has persisted despite court holdings in New York, and many other states, that education for civic participation is the constitutional right of all children.

The book analyzes the causes of the decline in civic preparation, provides a detailed analysis of what we know about how to prepare students for productive citizenship and considers examples of best practices. Flunking Democracy further argues that the courts are a vital part of the solution to this civic decline and concludes with specific recommendations for how the courts can and should address this deficiency.

Flunking Democracy is essential reading for anyone interested in education, the law, and creating a more democratic society. Order your copy today!

CEE Releases New Edition of Guide to NY Students’ Educational Rights

Do you know what resources, services, and supports ALL New York schools must provide their students?

Today, the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University, is releasing an updated, concise summary of all of this fundamental information.

Essential Resources: The Constitutional Requirements for Providing All Students in New York State the Opportunity for a Sound Basic Education (2nd Edition) 

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Drawing on relevant and up-to-date state statutes, regulations, and the court order in the landmark legal case Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) v. State of New YorkEssential Resources zeroes in on the educational resources to which students are entitled under the state constitution.
First published in December 2012, Essential Resources became the first-ever comprehensive compilation of New York students’ educational rights, and served as a framework for assessing the state’s compliance with CFE, which guarantees all students the right to a “sound basic education”–a set of learning opportunities specifically designed to prepare them for effective civic participation and good jobs.

By raising awareness about these rights, we aim to equip New Yorkers with the research-based information they need in order to hold the government accountable for, at the very least, following its own education laws. Ultimately, all children, not just the privileged few, will have the opportunity to meet state learning standards and fulfill their civic and career-related potential.

Please join us in widely sharing the latest version of this powerful resource, particularly with families currently affected by educational-rights violations.

And help us make the new version available to thousands of New York families. Contribute today!

2017 Educational-Equity Highlights: CEE’s Year in Review

The Center for Educational Equity needs your help to make 2018 as productive as this past year! Thanks to supporters like you, here is just some of what we accomplished in 2017:

To strengthen students’ educational rights and opportunities, we turned our rights-based lens on underexplored areas of educational policy: pre-K, career and technical education, and preparation for civic participation. Our research and legal analysis in these areas resulted in several trailblazing publications:

  • Establishing the Right to Universal Pre-K, researched and written in partnership with the Center for Children’s Initiatives
  • Ensuring Students’ Right to Preparation for Competitive Employment
  • CEE executive director Michael Rebell’s new book, Flunking Democracy, Schools, Courts, and Civic Participation (U. Chicago Press, 2018)

CEE officially launched a new initiative, “Securing the Future of Our Democracy: Students’ Right to Preparation for Civic Participation.” Our work to date includes

  • A pilot study of assessing the availability of resources for civic preparation in public high schools in the New York metropolitan area.
  • A policy primer on preparing students for civic preparation that will be distributed by the Learning Policy Institute to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
  • Convening New York State leaders in civic education, civic engagement, and educational equity to begin planning a collective effort to align policy with the state constitutional requirement to prepare all students for civic participation.

We extended our efforts to equip and empower students and parents with useable knowledge about children’s education rights.

  • In partnership with young people and adults at THE POINT and Knowledge House, we began work on an innovative Know Your Educational Rights mobile app that will give students and parents the information and tools they need to make sure elected officials and education officials equip their schools with required resources.
  • In partnership the Adelaide Stanford Institute, we facilitated parents becoming educational-rights “ambassadors” who shared knowledge with other parents and advocated for school officials to inform families of their educational rights under state law.
  • We produced an updated, second-edition Essential Resources, the first compendium of school-level resource requirements under state law.

With a grant from the Wallace Foundation, and in partnership with stellar TC professors Jeffrey Henig and Carolyn Riehl, we led Teachers College teams to eight small American cities in field research to study collaborative efforts to improve education. The third report from this research project will appear in 2018.

We need your generous support to continue this important work. Please give what you can!

Securing the Future of Our Democracy: Preparing ALL Students for Civic Participation

vote gen 3The Center for Educational Equity (CEE) at Teachers College (TC), Columbia University, celebrated election day by announcing the launch of our educational-rights initiative focused on strengthening students’ preparation for civic participation.

Through our new initiative, CEE will work with TC colleagues, educators, parents and students, and other leaders in the field to:

  • fill critical knowledge gaps through research;
  • develop legal strategies;
  • engage the public; and
  • build a coalition to advance a common policy agenda.

Preparing students for their important civic responsibilities as members of a democracy has historically been an essential role of schools in the United States. In most states, preparation for civic participation is also central to the right to education afforded by the state constitution.

In New York, the state’s highest court 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 for productive civic participation and competitive employment. This means every school must be equipped to help all students develop the knowledge, skills, and habits they need to be effective civic participants when they graduate from high school.

As co-counsel for CFE, Michael A. Rebell, presently TC professor of law and educational practice and CEE executive director, led a statewide coalition that fought hard to win this right. Over the past year, CEE has been closely analyzing the substantial gaps in civic preparation that exist in schools here and nationwide. Rebell has written a book, Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts and Civic Preparation (U. of Chicago Press, forthcoming, 2018), that examines these issues in detail.

The current state of civic life and our democratic institutions has generated great interest in this topic. For example, the New York State Education Department recently signaled the state’s commitment to preparing students for civic participation by including a “college, career and civic readiness index” concept in its Every Student Succeeds Act plan. We would like to see New York lead the way in equipping young people to strengthen our democracy.

CEE’s new initiative will help ensure that all students — particularly students living in poverty and those of color— have the opportunity to become effective civic participants.

Learn more and support our Securing the Future of Our Democracy civic-preparation initiative here.

Today, the Campaign for Educational Equity becomes the Center for Educational Equity

The Center for Educational Equity (CEE) will continue to champion children’s right to a meaningful opportunity to graduate from high school prepared for college, careers, and civic participation—and work to define and secure the full range of resources, supports, and services necessary to guarantee this right to all children, particularly children in poverty and children of color.

You can now find us at www.centerforeducationalequity.org.

You can still connect with us through our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram handle: @eduequity.

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The Campaign for Educational Equity will become the Center for Educational Equity

CENTER for Ed Equity bannerOn October 5, 2017, the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University will become the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College.

The Center for Educational Equity (CEE) will continue to pursue our mission to champion children’s right to a meaningful opportunity to graduate from high school prepared for college, careers, and civic participation—and to define and secure the full range of resources, supports, and services necessary to guarantee this right to all children, particularly children in poverty and children of color.

Our dynamic approach to this work, which combines research, policy development, legal analysis, and public engagement, will remain the same.

Our new name reflects our ongoing position as a permanent policy and research center at Teachers College, the nation’s largest and oldest graduate school for education. As part of the Teachers College community, we benefit greatly from the diverse expertise and experience of TC’s students, faculty, and administration.