Accountability Citizenship Civics Education Reform Justice

Rhode Island: A Must-Read Court Decision!

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You are probably not in the habit of reading court decisions. They tend to be dense and filled with citations that slow down the reader.

But you must read the decision issued on October 13 by Judge William Smith of the U.S. District Court of Rhode Island. It is brilliant, fascinating, informative. It is a lesson in civics for all of us.

Students in Rhode Island sued the state of Rhode Island and its governor Gina Raimondo because they did not receive education in civics, which (they said) deprived them of the knowledge and skills they needed to participate in our democracy.

Judge Smith reluctantly dismissed their appeal because no federal court (except for one in Michigan) had ruled that Americans have a “right” to education. He laments that this is the case, and he explains in crisp detail why democracy is in danger in the absence of civic education. He clearly wanted to rule in favor of the students. They will appeal but are likely to run into more roadblocks.

Judge Smith notes that the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 ruled that education was fundamental to citizenship, but the Nixon Court in 1973 ruled that education was not a right guaranteed by the Constitution. Judge Smith laments that fact but can’t overrule it.

Here is the announcement of the decision from the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College. Michael A. Rebell of the Center is lead counsel for the plaintiffs.

Judge William Smith of the U.S. District Court for Rhode Island, issued his long-awaited decision in Cook v. Raimondo on on October 13,2020. This case was filed by a group of Rhode Island public school students and families who seek to establish a right under the U.S. Constitution to an education adequate to prepare them to participate effectively in their constitutional rights to “voting, serving on a jury, understanding economic, social, and political systems sufficiently to make informed choices, and to participate effectively in civic activities.”

Judge Smith granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case, but did so in a manner that eloquently set forth the critical importance of the issues the plaintiffs raised:

This is what it all comes down to: we may choose to survive as a country by respecting our Constitution, the laws and norms of political and civic behavior, and by educating our children on civics, the rule of law, and what it really means to be an American, and what America means. Or, we may ignore these things at our and their peril. Unfortunately, this Court cannot, for the reasons explained below, deliver or dictate the solution — but, in denying that relief, I hope I can at least call out the need for it.

The judge added:

This case does not represent a wild-eyed effort to expand the reach of substantive due process, but rather a cry for help from a generation of young people who are destined to inherit a country which we — the generation currently in charge — are not stewarding well. What these young people seem to recognize is that American democracy is in peril. Its survival, and their ability to reap the benefit of living in a country with robust freedoms and rights, a strong economy, and a moral center protected by the rule of law is something that citizens must cherish, protect, and constantly work for. We would do well to pay attention to their plea.

Plaintiffs in Cook v. Raimondo argue that the U.S. Constitution entitles all students to an education that prepares them to participate fully in a democracy. It alleges that the state of Rhode Island is failing to provide tens of thousands of students throughout the state with the necessary basic education and civic-participation skills. The plaintiffs are 14 high school, middle school, elementary school, and preschool students (or parents on behalf of their children) attending public schools in a variety of school districts throughout the state. An ultimate decision on behalf of plaintiffs in this case would establish a constitutional right to education for students throughout the United States.

Judge Smith rejected the plaintiffs’ equal protection claim, writing that, although the U.S. Supreme Court “left the door open just a crack” for reconsideration of its 1973 decision in San Antonio Ind’t Sch. Dist. v. Rodriguez that education is not a right the U.S. Constitution,  he interpreted that “crack” to allow the courts to consider only a case that alleges that students are receiving no education  whatsoever or an education that is “totally inadequate.”  He also rejected plaintiffs’ “substantive due process” claim that a right to education for citizenship is “deeply rooted in the nation’s history and traditions” because “[p]recedent clearly dictates that, while education as a civic ideal is no doubt deeply rooted in our country’s history, there is no right to civics education in the Constitution.”

Judge Smith’s opinion squarely recognized the federal court’s authority to review the students’ claim on the merits, namely whether a constitutional right to civics education represented the “quantum of education” that might be necessary for students to be prepared for the “meaningful exercise” of their constitutional rights. While Judge Smith found, to his regret, that he was unable to connect the legal dots to support this claim, his opinion articulates what is at stake for our country and our Constitution, leaving the plaintiffs a road map to present their appeal to the First Circuit. 

Plaintiffs have stated that they will appeal this decision to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. Michael A. Rebell, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, who is lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said:

Judge Smith has written the most eloquent and forceful justification I’ve ever read for why America may not “survive as a county” if our students don’t obtain a civic education adequate to allow them to meet the challenges jeopardizing our democracy. The final paragraph to his opinion reads:

Plaintiffs should be commended for bringing this case. It highlights a deep flaw in our national education priorities and policies. The Court cannot provide the remedy Plaintiffs seek, but in denying that relief, the Court adds its voice to Plaintiffs’ in calling attention to their plea. Hopefully, others who have the power to address this need will respond appropriately.

Rebell, and the students and families he represents, believe a strong stance by the court will be necessary to ensure the policymakers and school leaders who have the power to address these issues actually do so. Rebell said, “Judge Smith acknowledged that the U.S.  Supreme Court in Rodriguez left the door open “a crack” for reconsideration aspects of that decision; we hope to convince the Court of Appeals that this open door does, in fact, permit the courts to rule on the critical issues raised by our case.”

Judge Smith’s full decision is linked here.

I urge you to read the decision.

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