Appeals court to hear RI case with national implications for civic education

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“If America is to overcome the extreme polarization that currently plagues our political culture,” the legal record says, “it is also essential that schools teach the next generation the values ​​of democratic tolerance and civic discourse.

But a state lawyer urged the court to dismiss the appeal, saying the plaintiffs had shown no “causal connection” between the January 6 attack and “the alleged inadequate education instruction. civic”.

Anthony F. Cottone, chief legal counsel for the Rhode Island Department of Education, noted that the plaintiffs describe themselves as primarily African-American and Latino students from low-income families.

“Still, there didn’t seem to be many black or brown faces in the crowd that stormed the Capitol,” Cottone wrote. “In fact, the crowd was cheered on by white males who graduated from Ivy League graduate schools who presumably received adequate civic education.”

In 2018, a class action lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Providence on behalf of 14 Rhode Island students, arguing that the U.S. Constitution allows all students an education that prepares them to participate effectively in a democracy.

In October 2020, U.S. District Court Judge William E. Smith dismissed the case. But in his 55-page decision, Smith described the lawsuit as “a cry for help from a generation of young people who are destined to inherit a country that we – the generation now in charge – are not managing well.” What these young people seem to recognize is that American democracy is in jeopardy.

On Monday, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit will hear arguments for the appeal of Smith’s decision.

Michael A. Rebell, the senior attorney for the Rhode Island students who claim the state is failing them, said there was a good chance that the United States Supreme Court would eventually be asked to take up the matter. ‘case. “I hope we win so it will be a decision the state has to make,” he said, “but I can tell you that if we don’t win, we will certainly ask the court. supreme to hear the case. “

Rebell, executive director of the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College at Columbia University, said he was often asked about concerns the Supreme Court was moving in a conservative direction. But he said, “Civic education is not a Republican or Democratic issue, nor a Liberal or Conservative issue. People from all sides of the political spectrum tend to agree on this.

While conservatives and liberals differ in exactly what should be taught in classrooms, “everyone agrees that we need to prepare our children for a democratic society,” he said.

Additionally, Rebell noted that in his year-end annual report, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. emphasized the importance of civic education. “In our time, when social media can instantly spread rumors and false information on a massive scale, the public’s need to understand our government and the protections it offers is increasingly vital,” Roberts wrote.

In the state’s legal brief, Cottone argued that “a compelling legal precedent has established that there is no fundamental right to education under the Constitution of the United States.”

He cited the 1973 United States Supreme Court decision in the San Antonio Independent School District case, v. Rodriguez. In that 5-4 decision, the High Court ruled that relying on property taxes to fund public schools does not violate the equal protection clause, even though there are disparities between districts.

But Rebell argued that the Rodriguez decision left the door open for a trial, like this one, claiming that students have a right to a “basic civic education” that prepares them to “function productively as civic participants. able to vote, sitting on a jury. , exercising the rights to freedom of expression and participating effectively in civic activities. “

Rebell gave Smith credit for having “an eloquent analysis” of why “American democracy is in jeopardy.” But he said the judge narrowly defined the “amount of education” needed to prepare students to effectively exercise their constitutional rights.

“It doesn’t have to be the best level of education possible or the most effective,” Rebell said. “But it has to be more than functional literacy. It’s a happy medium. In Rhode Island and elsewhere, civic education is far from that happy medium, he said.

Rebell’s legal brief is taken from “A Republic If You Can Keep It,” a book by Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, noting that 23% of high school students across the country have mastered basic civic knowledge and skills and “only 30% of millennials agree that it is ‘essential … to live in a democracy’.

But Cottone argued that Rhode Island has taken steps to “help ensure civics and social studies are an important part of the state’s elementary and secondary school curriculum.” And he argued that such civic education complaints should be pursued with state and local education officials, not in federal court.

“The circuit should decline the plaintiffs’ call to overthrow the Rhode Island General Assembly and convert the federal courts into local school boards tasked with unilaterally defining the adequacy of education in relation to the teaching of social studies and of civic education according to the vague specifications of the plaintiffs, “Cottone said. wrote.

Rebell said the plaintiffs were not trying to micromanage the schools. “They are only asking that the defendants exercise their existing supervisory authority, which they have applied in many other areas of education, to ensure that civic education is a high priority for Rhode Island schools,” he wrote.

Rebell said he could have taken legal action in any of the 50 states because they all fall short of civics. But he said the students had researched and found six “insanely deficient” states, including Rhode Island.

And when he traveled to Rhode Island, Rebell found tremendous support from the community to improve the situation. About 100 people gathered for a meeting, including parents, teachers and lawyers who had filed other education lawsuits. “They saw it as the only hope,” he said.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on twitter @FitzProv.



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