Civic Duty Calls

Contested Civic Education in Providence

by Marina Hunt

published March 27, 2020

Standing in front of a poster board she had prepared for the Providence Community Day at Asa Messer Elementary, Chloe Feit, an eighth-grader at Nathan-Bishop public school, said she felt fortunate to have taken an elective last year that integrated civics and current events into one course. For Feit, one of the highlights of the course was analyzing news stories and discussing the constitutional issues they raised. This exercise helped her grasp the greater meaning of political events happening every day.

“I’m lucky enough that I’m learning about this because I have a teacher who agrees that kids should know about it,” Feit said to the College Hill Independent. “It has nothing to do with being smart, it has to do with being able to obtain that knowledge.”

Community Day took place as part of an initiative led by Rhode Island’s Commissioner of Education Angélica Infante-Green to involve parents, students, and educators in the process of developing a long-term plan for school improvement. Three Community Design Teams hosted the event, where they presented their recommendations and invited the public to give feedback. The teams were made up of 45 parents, teachers, students, and community stakeholders who were nominated to lead the charge in developing community-based recommendations for the state’s Turnaround Plan. Meeting weekly between December 2019 and March 2020, the Design Teams worked alongside Commissioner Infante-Green to develop a strategy to turn around Providence public schools.

The Turnaround Plan has been in the works since Johns Hopkins released a report last June  that detailed the systemic dysfunctions that have long plagued the Providence Public School District’s (PPSD) education system. The report found that only 10 percent of students in Providence are performing at or above grade level in math and 14 percent in English language arts, indicating a lack of quality curriculum to guide academic instruction. This not only impacts students, but also teachers, who reported that a lack of professional development opportunities has left them feeling unsupported. The report also highlighted that parents are dissatisfied with the opportunities available to engage with and give feedback to their children’s schools. The Turnaround Plan, expected to come out in April, will be one step in the long project of addressing these issues.




While the recent Johns Hopkins report precipitated a new urgency in the state’s response to the PPSD’s shortcomings, the fight for an adequate education has been a long one for Rhode Islanders. Local educators, lawmakers, and community members agree that the state has long underserved its students and that community engagement is an important part of achieving sustainable educational reform.

This becomes difficult to achieve, however, when public schools are doing little to inform students about how to engage with the state institutions whose purpose, at least in theory, is to represent them. As Feit highlighted at Community Day, not all students today have access to a civically-engaged education, and not all share Feit’s privilege of parents who have the time, resources, and channels to become aware of events like Community Day.

14 Rhode Island students raised this issue in November 2018 when they filed a federal lawsuit against the State of Rhode Island. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege that the state has failed “to provide all students a meaningful opportunity to obtain an education adequate to prepare them to be capable citizens.” The students are represented by Michael Rebell, professor at Columbia Law School and litigator experienced in education law. The defendants include Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, Commissioner of Education Ken Wagner, as well as the state’s House Speaker and Senate President.

The pending lawsuit, Cook v. Raimondo, seeks to establish public education as a right under the US Constitution, the goal being to bring attention to educational shortcomings in Rhode Island and, ultimately, across the nation.




The lawsuit responds to a 1973 Supreme Court case, San Antonio Independent School Dist. v. Rodriguez, in which the Court considered, but failed to conclude, whether the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees students the fundamental right to an education that provides them with “the basic minimal skills necessary for the enjoyment of the rights of speech and of full participation in the political process.” The inconclusive outcome left a door open for this group of Rhode Island students to ask the Court to reopen this question and affirm this right.

One of the core issues raised by the complaint is what constitutes these “basic minimal skills” and how they should be developed. Testifying for the complaint, one plaintiff noted that his high school social studies course taught formal facts about American government institutions, but failed to show the relationship between these institutions and the student’s future role as an active citizen. Another reported not having received any dedicated civics instruction during high school at all. Further, none of her teachers had been trained in the area of civics. All felt that Rhode Island public schools were failing to prepare students to be civically engaged in their youth and their futures.

These testimonies suggest that “basic minimal skills” do not simply imply a basic civics course but rather a more comprehensive and engaged form of civic preparation. Not just a primer on US history and its institutions, as civics has traditionally been understood, but an education that prepares students fully to participate in their democracy. Student societies, drama clubs, and school trips to the State House all make the cut according to Rebell, who emphasized that while a basic civics course can be an important step toward ensuring that students receive an adequate education, “It’s not the whole ballgame.”

If Chief Judge Smith decides in favor of the defendants, Rebell and his co-counsel will appeal to the Supreme Court. A decision in favor of the plaintiffs would bring the case to trial, and the country one step closer to a formal affirmation that students do in fact have a right to an education adequate to prepare them to be capable citizens. “No other judge has said that,” said Rebell in an interview with the Independent. “The weight of the federal government or the US Supreme Court, if we get that far, emphasizing its importance—that would be game-changing.”




Since the eighteenth century, the nation’s leaders have emphasized the importance of a sufficiently educated citizenry to the success of this great experiment in republican government. The complaint cites Horace Mann’s 1846 Tenth Annual Report to the Massachusetts State Board of Education in which he wrote that “under our republican government…education…[must be] sufficient to qualify each citizen for the civil and social duties he will be called to discharge.” In other words, without citizens capable of participating in public life, the democractic system might not survive.

Nearly two centuries later, state and federal institutions continue to struggle to define what constitutes a “sufficient” education and how to achieve it.

Tom Kerr-Vanderslice, Rhode Island Executive Director of Generation Citizen, an organization that works to incorporate action civics into school curriculums, described to the Independent the “slow whittling” of civics from the US public school curriculum that has taken place over the last several decades. A key turning point, he said, was George W. Bush’s 2002 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy. This policy precipitated an education movement focused primarily on high stakes testing. While math, English, and science came into the spotlight, social sciences became further and further deprioritized, taking with it any real emphasis on civics.

Following these measures, only 23 percent of eighth graders polled from a national sample reached the “proficiency” level on the most recent examination of civics knowledge administered in 2014. A report by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of the Schools found in 2011 that less than a fifth of high school seniors could explain how citizen participation benefits democracy.

NCLB established a set of nationally mandated requirements intended to equalize educational opportunities for disadvantaged students by holding all schools to the same standard. Despite the good intentions of the policy, critics argue that the policy ended up harming the quality of education. Because schools that didn’t show improvement in testing were penalized, public school curriculums became focused on boosting standardized test scores, diminishing the attention given to fostering diverse forms of critical thinking. Kerr-Vanderslice recalls that his Providence high school would throw celebrations for classes every year they showed improvement “because that meant they were gonna get better funding.”




The legacy of the NCLB policy and its unintended consequences speaks to the limited ability of legislation to engender change, and in particular, the enormous change that is urgently needed to  “turn around” the PPSD. The Civic Literacy Act (CLA), a bill introduced by House Representative Brian Newberry in January for the third year in a row, might challenge this assumption. If it passes, the bill would mandate that every high school student in Rhode Island take a full year of civics before graduating.

The bill now defines civics in terms of developing a knowledge of US history and foundational documents, the roles and responsibilities of federal, state, and local governments, as well as the development of skills to analyze, debate and evaluate media and public policy issues. The bill did not, however, always look like this.

Kerr-Vanderslice, who, in addition to being the local director of Generation Citizen, is one of the lead writers of the bill, actually testified against earlier versions of it. “The specific types of learning [Representative Newberry] was referring to in his bill were already happening—US history is very well represented in the Rhode Island curriculum right now,” said Kerr-Vanderslice in conversation with the Independent.

It was not enough to simply tell schools to teach civics—it was important to define how it should be taught. In its original form, the bill did not speak to the kind of reform that schools really needed because our representatives could not understand what schools needed without hearing from the students and teachers themselves. Representative Newberry was receptive to this message and, with the help of community input, reshaped the bill to emphasize engaged civics beyond classroom learning.

While the CLA is a thoughtful effort to return civics education to the central position it deserves in public school curriculums, the outcomes of the NCLB policy speak to the limitations of a bill like the CLA and its potential for unintended consequences.

Ken Wagner, Commissioner of Education at the time the Cook v. Raimondo lawsuit was filed and a defendant in the case, stresses this point. While he agrees that civic preparation should take a central position in public education, he is skeptical that state-mandated requirements like the CLA can achieve systemic change. While not expressly opposed to requirements, Wagner believes that pursuing too many at once fosters a context in which representatives lose track of individual goals and end up achieving very little. “The government never stops doing things. It just stops doing things well,” he said. Wagner learned this working at the New York State Department of Education from 2009 to 2015. “We did a whole lot of things that not only nobody was asking for, but there was just almost violent opposition to,” Wagner said.

Wagner and his boss would go on listening tours, visiting 1,200-seat auditoriums to get community feedback on policies. Despite the federal grant funds, surplus money put toward education, and the requirements, people weren't happy. “People would just scream at us for two hours,” Wagner said. Their discontent was in response to formulaic approaches to school improvement, like NCLB or Race to the Top, and other state-mandated requirements. “None of it was sustainable,” Wagner said. “All of the work that we did for 5-6 years came undone.”

Instead of legally-mandated requirements, Wagner insists that a greater focus on grassroots demand at the parent, student, and teacher level is needed to achieve sustainable change in education. “The real solution is to activate communities,” Wagner said, clarifying that when students, teachers, and administrators on the ground become invested in an issue, “It’s not just an abstract requirement that gets a lot of attention and quietly fades away, it’s a real thing that people will have to pay attention to.”




Ariana Testa, assistant principal of Juanita Sanchez high school, illustrates the power of active community demand for change. She believes that any administrator can find a way to build civics into the curriculum, insisting, “If you want something in your schedule, you can make it happen.”

Working with Generation Citizen, Testa has incorporated a community development program into the Juanita Sanchez high school curriculum. All students take three community development classes across 10th, 11th, and 12th grade that take them out into the Providence community.

“I want them to know what the world is when they go out into it,” said Testa. While civics continues to follow a more traditional curriculum at Juanita Sanchez, Testa is working to marry this course with the community development program to ultimately engage all of her students in some form of active civics.

Still, Rita Kerr-Vanderslice, a Rhode Island high school social studies teacher (and the sister of Tom Kerr-Vanderslice), emphasized to the Independent that few students currently enjoy the privilege of an engaged civics education.

“What I would love to see is a whole restructuring of how we think about social studies, putting civics at the center of it,” said Kerr-Vanderslice. “You gotta understand the world that you live in, and the rest of it is frosting.”


MARINA HUNT B’21 loved civics class in high school.