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
Scales of justice and Gavel on wooden table and Lawyer or Judge working with agreement in Courtroom, Justice and Law concept.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Assessment Webinar
The State of Assessment in K-12 Education
What is the impact of assessment on K-12 education? What does that mean for administrators, teachers and most importantly—students?
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Centering the Whole Child in School Improvement Planning and Redesign
Learn how leading with equity and empathy yield improved sense of belonging, attendance, and promotion rate to 10th grade.

Content provided by Panorama
Teaching Profession Webinar Examining the Evidence: Supports to Promote Teacher Well-Being
Rates of work dissatisfaction are on the rise among teachers. Grappling with an increased workload due to the pandemic and additional stressors have exacerbated feelings of burnout and demoralization. Given these challenges, what can the

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts Arizona Sues Biden to Keep School Anti-Mask Rules
At issue are two state programs the Republican governor created last summer that use federal COVID-19 relief money.
4 min read
FILE — Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey gives his state of the state address at the Arizona Capitol, Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, in Phoenix. Ducey sued the Biden administration, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022, over its demand that the state stop sending millions in federal COVID-19 relief money to schools that don't have mask requirements or that close due to COVID-19 outbreaks. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
Law & Courts U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Major Cases on Affirmative Action in Education
The outcome could affect K-12 policies when the justices rule on race-based policies at Harvard and the University of North Carolina.
3 min read
A man talks on his phone on the steps of Harvard University's Widener Library, in Cambridge, Mass. on June 26, 2020.
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up major cases on affirmative action in admissions at Harvard University, above, and at the University of North Carolina.
Elise Amendola/AP
Law & Courts Supreme Court to Hear Case of Coach Who Prayed After Games in Defiance of School District
The U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether school districts may prohibit private religious expression by public school employees.
4 min read
Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy is in a conflict with the Bremerton, 
Wash., school district over his silent prayer after games.
Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joseph A. Kennedy stands at on the 50-yard line at Bremerton Memorial Stadium. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal over his dismissal for praying after football games.
Larry Steagall/Kitsap Sun via AP
Law & Courts Supreme Court Blocks Biden Vaccine Mandate Applying to Schools in Much of the Country
The justices ruled 6-3 to stay an Occupational Health and Safety Administration rule that covered schools in 26 states and two territories.
4 min read
Members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo last April.
The U.S. Supreme Court blocked a federal vaccine mandate for large employers, including school districts in about half the states.
Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP