Civic Disobedience

A class-action lawsuit in Rhode Island advocates for civics education

by Sara Van Horn & Wen Zhuang

Illustration by James Gately

published February 14, 2019

In 2015, only 23 percent of eighth graders in the United States demonstrated proficiency in civics, according to a national assessment by the federal government. Since 1998, the average civics score for this group has only increased by four points. This lack of civics education—basic knowledge of government and the democratic process—not only signals a highly uninformed electorate but is also indicative of the failure of the nation’s public education system. In the US, you are granted the right to vote when you turn 18, but not the right to know how or why.

Professor Michael Rebell of Columbia University believes the time has come to establish education as a constitutional right. In 2016, Rebell began researching a legally-enshrined pathway to American civics education. His study draws on a 1973 Supreme Court Case, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, which declared that “the right to be educated” was not—as many of us may have assumed—“explicitly or implicitly” stated in the US Constitution. But in the same decision, the court acknowledged the importance of education in cultivating responsible citizens, raising an important question: does the Constitution guarantee the right to an education? After a sabbatical year spent researching this provocative and unanswered question, Rebell reached out to lawyers in Rhode Island last summer to find plaintiffs and file a lawsuit that would use securing the right to civics education as a means to codify education, broadly defined, as a constitutional right. The suit names six defendants: Governor Gina Raimondo, Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, Education Commissioner Ken Wagner, the Rhode Island Board of Education, and the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education.

The class-action lawsuit, A.C. vs. Raimondo, filed this past November, alleges that Rhode Island has failed to provide its public school students with the civics education necessary for full, democratic participation in American life. This formalized push for civics education appeals to supporters from across the political spectrum, in Rhode Island and around the country. The 14 student plaintiffs are fueled by what the suit alleges is inadequate civics preparation in the state. “We’re hoping we win this lawsuit and change it to where my younger brothers can have a really good education, and go into adulthood knowing how to vote, how to do taxes, and learning basic things that you should know going into the real world,” Aelita Cook, in her fourth year at the Providence Career & Technical Academy and one of the plaintiffs in the case, told the New York Times this past fall. These public school students span several age groups and hail from various school districts as well as different academic and cultural backgrounds.

More broadly, the suit reflects the momentum of the current political moment, where public urgency for civics education reverberates nationwide. While the legal road ahead is long and certainly challenging, the groundbreaking potential of a favorable ruling has many education advocates excited. In conversation with the Independent, Jennifer Wood, a lawyer in the case and the Executive Director of RI Center for Justice, pointed to a myriad of powerful quotes in past Supreme Court cases about the fundamental importance of education. “We believe that we just haven’t asked the question the right way.”




The lawyers behind the case have set their sights high, aiming for no less than a judicial decision declaring education a constitutional right. The case is professionally spearheaded by a group of lawyers initially contacted by Professor Rebell: Jennifer Wood from Rhode Island Center for Justice, Samuel Zurier from Zurier Law, and Stephen Robinson from Robinson & Clapham Law Firm, all of whom have experience challenging educational practices in court.

In conversation with the Indy, Rebell noted the bleak reality of civics education across the country. “We could've brought this case in any of the 50 states because none of them are doing an adequate job,” he said. However, as Wood explained to the Independent, the choice of Rhode Island as Rebell’s “test case” was not an arbitrary one: “We have very difficult facts about some of the inequalities in some of the more economically distressed neighborhoods in PVD,” she said, pointing to a civics elective course that was eliminated in the Woonsocket school district following the 2008 recession.

Statistics published this past November also confirm this claim: recent Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS) exam results reveal some sobering statistics: 34 percent of Rhode Island’s students in grades three to eight were considered just barely proficient in English Language Arts compared to 51 percent in neighboring Massachusetts, where an identical standardized test is administered.  Rhode Island also has a disappointing record in civics education: it is one of the few states that has no civics requirement in state-mandated curricula.

This disillusionment with state education policy reverberates across the working coalition behind the case. Robinson has worked on the subject for nearly 20 years, heading both Pawtucket v. Sundlun in 1995 and Woonsocket School Committee v. Chafee in 2014, the last two cases on state-level education reform. Although the former, which was directly linked to issues presented in the 1973 Rodriguez case around equitable funding in school districts, was reversed and lost in the Rhode Island Supreme Court, Robinson, recalling the case to the Independent, emphasized its subsequent impact: “As a result, for about 10 years, it was simply a recognition that we had to give more money to the poor districts.” Armed with the hopeful consequences from Pawtucket, Robinson along with Samuel D. Zurier (another lawyer in the current civics suit) tried again in Woonsocket School Committee 19 years later, this time arguing for equal funding with a larger focus constitutional rights and liberties, pointing directly to the education clause in the Rhode Island constitution. While unsuccessful a second time, it introduced the potentials of using a civics focus in legal arguments for equitable education.

“I’m hopeful that people will see [A.C. v. Raimondo] as something that isn’t a class thing,” said Robinson, “My past two cases were unpopular even in Rhode Island—you’re trying to take money from well-to-do wealthy people—but this is different. I think most people want fellow citizens to be engaged voters. Like back to Greek times.”

A.C. v. Raimondo is unique in its bipartisan support. While the case is heralded by some as a progressive effort to address educational inequities, Wood reminds us that the biggest Supreme Court champions of civics education have been Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Neil Gorsuch, appointed by Republican presidents. Republicans and Democrats find common ground in the struggle for civic participation, she argues, particularly when thinking about who is excluded from the democratic process. The lack of access to elite institutions and the civic preparation they provide is a topic where, Wood reminded us, “I could quote from both teams.” Public civics education is also something that particularly animates people attentive to the statements of the Founding Fathers, a style of reading first used in 1980s by Scalia and other conservative judges, and to the notion of democratic participation: “You can’t parse that along electoral political lines,” Wood said.




These lawyers believe that specifically emphasizing civic participation as the goal of US public education will allow the courts to move beyond the aforementioned ruling in San Antonio v. Rodriguez, a case which failed to dismantle the unequal funding of public schools through property taxes—the underlying source of public educational inequality more broadly. “What the Supreme Court said in Rodriguez,” Wood explained to the Indy, “was that students don’t have a right to equivalent funding. That case was actually a funding equity case which is critically important to what our case is not.” A.C. v. Raimondo, in contrast, is a civics one, arguing that the question —whether or not education is protected under the constitution—is an open one.   

Instead of fighting for the financial reform of public schools, this coalition of lawyers seeks to guarantee the right to an education by arguing that civic education is crucial to the full participation in American democracy. Their theory, according to Wood, is that “There are certain enumerated constitutional rights—the right to vote, the right to be judged by a jury of one’s peers, the right to exercise free speech—and that all of these enumerated constitutional rights are rendered inaccessible if you do not have the adequate education.” This legal strategy incorporates judicial precedent from hundreds of years ago and harkens back to the importance that the Founders themselves placed on civics education. As Wood explained, “You actually have to be a good student of civics to bring a civics case.”

Yet the emphasis on civics is not a universal strategy among lawyers fighting for American educational rights. In Detroit, for example, a court case is seeking a similar declaration of educational rights on the basis of literacy. This different standard is especially alarming to Rebell, who told the Indy, “We're very concerned that if we're going to get one shot at the Supreme Court, the outcome shouldn't be that all you need to be a capable citizen is to be able to read and write at a sixth grade level.” Emphasizing civics, he argues, allows for a much more robust definition of education, one that is tailored to the political realities of the 21st century: increased internet use, for example, as well as heightened stress on widespread voter participation.

Additionally, newly available data on US public education can provide key supporting evidence that previous lawsuits lacked. Attributing this “literal mountain of data” to changes in data collection under President George W. Bush, Wood highlighted the new authority this data lends to claims of educational inequities. Instead of asking a judge to make a subjective assessment about educational standards, lawyers can use statistics to point to learning gaps between different groups of students based on race, gender, and income and to compare Rhode Island’s performance to national standards.




The rightward shift in the political and social climate after the 2016 presidential election is at the center of Rebell’s push for a renewed focus and emphasis on civics education. The repercussions of the election also preface his book published last year, Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts, and Civic Participation, in which he situates the root of our current polarized society in the decline of what was once a robust era of civic engagement. He starts by recalling the civic ethos of the Founding Fathers: “teach good political judgment, allow learning from prior generations’ mistakes and successes, and inculcate honesty, integrity, and compassion.” He then traces the decline of this ethos to the second half of the 20th century, arguing that civics curricula failed to address the new values, rights, and technology of changing times. In an age of deceptive news coverage, he believes students are required to have not only basic civics literacy but a critical understanding of media.

Both Robinson and Wood were quick to stress the overwhelming public support for an approach focusing on civics education. “This case causes and commands public conversation about the core purpose of public education,” said Wood. “Why do we even do this thing? We educate the public so they can participate in democracy in a knowing and informed way.” By aiming for a constitutional declaration instead of specific funding or curriculum reform, A.C. v. Raimondo doesn’t necessarily address the root causes of Rhode Island’s failing education systems such as shrinking property tax bases or structural racism in public schools. Yet these concerns are not necessarily ignored by the lawyers pushing a case in many ways intended to spark a conversation and establish a basis from which to argue subsequent legislation. “I think this will ultimately end up in the US Supreme Court,” said Robinson. “I just hope I live long enough to see it.”


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