A group of Rhode Island public school students are mounting a federal lawsuit to force schools to better teach civics and prepare students for active citizenship in a democracy.
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Providence asserts that the U.S. Constitution grants students the right to a public education that prepares them to vote, to exercise free speech, petition the government, actively engage in civic life and exercise all of their constitutional rights guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment.
The suit was filed on behalf of the students, the Rhode Island Center for Justice and a New York law professor asks the court to ensure that public school students are provided an education that includes teaching civics and how the government works in a democracy.
Names as defendants are Gov. Gina Raimondo, House Speaker Nick Mattiello, D-Cranston and state education officials. The legal action is thought to be the first such case in the nation.
“This case has tremendous significance for students in Rhode Island and for students in the United States,” said Michael Rebell, a professor and executive director of the Center for Education Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University.
“For over 60 years,” said Rebell. “Schools have failed to carry out this basic responsibility.”
Rhode Island was chosen for several reasons, said Jennifer Wood, executive director of the R.I. Center for Justice and a lawyer. The other local counsel are lawyers Steve Robinson and Sam Zurier, a Providence city council member. Zurier and Robinson have deep experience in public school law and have been involved in school financing equity issues.
The Rhode Island Supreme Court has ruled that the General Assembly is essentially the state’s school committee and sets statewide education policy. The plaintiffs believe that federal court is the proper forum for a suit to see equity for teaching civics, Wood said.
There are also test scores that show Rhode Island students lagging behind other states on standardized tests, said Wood. She also pointed to test scores that show Latino students in Rhode Island public schools to be among the nation’s lowest.
“We don’t compare favorably with other states,” said Wood.
The suit cites educational studies that reach as far back as 1846, when Horace Mann released a Massachusetts report that stated that, “education must be sufficient to qualify each citizen for the civic and social duties he will be called to discharge.”
Also cited is the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education, a Kansas case that ordered the desegregation of American public schools. In that opinion, the high court opined that,” education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments.”
And the filing references national tests, including a 2014 national test of eighth graders that showed that less than one third of those taking the test could identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence. A similar test showed that less than 20 percent of high school seniors could explain how citizen participation benefits democracy.
The 14 students hail from a variety of public schools, including those in Providence, Central Falls and Pawtucket.