Plaintiffs in Cook v. McKee and State Reach Agreement on Improving Civic Education in Rhode Island

The plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit, Cook v. McKee, and the State of Rhode Island have reached an agreement on improving civic education. The Cook plaintiffs, joined by Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, announced on June 10th that the Rhode Island Department of Education will establish a Civic Readiness Task Force and a state diploma seal project, in conjunction with the plaintiffs in Cook v. McKee, and take other actions to improve the quality of civic education in Rhode Island.

Cook v. McKee is a class action suit against the State of Rhode Island, in which a group of Rhode Island students alleged that the State had deprived them of their rights under the United States Constitution to an education that would properly prepare them to become capable civic participants. As a result of these agreements, plaintiffs will not file a petition for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court that would seek to appeal the dismissal of their suit by the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

Commissioner Infante-Green said, “Civic education is vital for our students and for the maintenance of our American democracy. I thank these students for keeping their elders focused on the importance of civic education, especially in these times.”

Michael A. Rebell, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, and a professor of law and educational practice at Teachers College, Columbia University, added, “The purpose of this lawsuit has been to spur positive action on improving civic education in Rhode Island. We are pleased that the Commissioner is taking these steps, and we hope that other states will be inspired by her example to prioritize civic education.”

The Diploma Seal of Civic Readiness will be awarded to graduating high school seniors who have achieved high degrees of civics proficiency and completed a capstone project involving both research and active community involvement. Rhode Island will also establish a civics award program school districts can use to recognize middle school students who have demonstrated outstanding progress in civic readiness.

According to the agreement, the Commissioner will appoint the Civic Readiness Task Force of up to 15 members by September 1. It will be staffed by the Department of Education and include students, educators, parents, community members, and advocacy organizations, as well as some of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and their attorneys.  

Mealaktey Sok, a plaintiff in the case who was in high school when the case began, said, “Youth are not only the leaders of the future, but also the leaders of today. Investing in youth and equitable access to education, is to also invest and optimize the possibilities of tomorrow. And this starts with students being at the decision-making table. I am excited to see the changes and conversations that will take place through the Task Force. I am honored to play a part in bringing this lawsuit and improving education in Rhode Island for generations to come.”

The Task Force will advise the Commissioner on issues such as:

  • The advisability of adding a half credit course in civics in grade 8 and one in high school that would focus on media literacy, so students can learn to effectively utilize the internet and social media;
  • Providing school districts with methods and resources to support students in how to have respectful conversations on controversial issues with individuals having different views from their own, to be shared with LEAs;
  • Providing districts with resources for instruction about voter registration;
  • Implementation of the Commissioner’s Diploma Seal of Civic Readiness for high school graduates and civics award program for middle school students;
  • Development of a specific definition of “civic readiness” – to include civic knowledge, civic skills (including media literacy skills), civic experiences, and civic mindsets – and the manner in which this definition should be officially prescribed by the Rhode Island Department of Education:
  • Implementation of the requirement in the 2021 Civic Literacy Act that every school district provide one student-led civics project for students during either middle or high school;
  • Development of recommended methods for school districts to assess the proficiency and progress of students in civic readiness.

The Task Force will be expected to submit an initial report and recommendations to the Commissioner by March 31, 2023.