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Law & Courts

Students Lose Appeal on Right to Civics Education, But Win Praise From Judges Anyway

By Mark Walsh — January 12, 2022 3 min read
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Students asserting the right to an adequate civics education have lost their appeal of a federal court ruling that dismissed their suit accusing the state of Rhode Island of failing to prepare them for the duties of citizenship.

Like the federal district judge who had ruled in the case, now known as A.C. v. McKee, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, in Boston, lauded the student plaintiffs for their effort but ultimately concluded that their suit could not prevail.

“The students have called attention to critical issues of declining civic engagement and inadequate preparation for participation in civic life at a time when many are concerned about the future of American democracy,” a unaninous three-judge appeals panel said in an unanimous Jan. 11 decision.“Nevertheless, the weight of precedent stands in the students’ way here, and they have not stated any viable claim for relief.”

The lawsuit was filed in 2018 on behalf of 14 students, but was also a proposed class action on behalf of all public school students in Rhode Island. It alleged that state officials have failed to provide students with a meaningful opportunity to obtain an adequate education to prepare them to be capable citizens.

The suit said the state has no requirement for courses in civics education, even if some wealthier districts offer them as electives; it does not require testing for civics knowledge; and the civics curriculum that does exist does not promote discussion of controversial topics, among other alleged deficiencies.

In October 2020, U.S. District Judge William E. Smith held that he was compelled to dismiss the suit, but he commended the students.

“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,” Smith wrote.

In the new ruling this week, the 1st Circuit court agreed with the district judge that the U.S. Supreme Court has not recognized a fundamental federal right to education. It rejected the students reading of the high court’s landmark 1973 decision in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, which rejected a 14th Amendment equal-protection clause challenge to Texas’ school funding system.

The students “here read Rodriguez to suggest that, if properly alleged, we may conclude that the Constitution protects the specific right to a civics education that prepares them to participate effectively in these important aspects of public life (e.g.,voting or other civic participation),” the 1st Circuit court said. “We read the language in Rodriguez, however, to reject this proposition.”

The 1st Circuit court took note of another recent prominent case which had advanced a novel theory about a fundamental federal right to education. In 2020, in a case alleging deficiencies in the Detroit school system, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, recognized a federal right to a basic minimum education guaranteeing access to literacy. But the lawsuit soon settled, and the full 6th Circuit court vacated the panel decision, effectively wiping it off the books.

Unlike the Detroit case, the Rhode Island students’ lawsuit “fails to allege a total deprivation of a minimally adequate education,” the 1st Circuit court panel said.

The court also took note “of relevant Rhode Island law, which has since 2007 required at least some civics education in its schools, even if it is not as comprehensive as the framework [the students] desire, and this law was amended recently during the pendency of this appeal to require civics proficiency, among other changes.”

There was no immediate reaction from the groups backing the students, the Rhode Island Center for Justice or the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University.

The students have the right to seek review by the full 1st Circuit court or by the Supreme Court.

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