Social Studies

Education Is Fundamental to Citizenship--And a Constitutional Right, New Lawsuit Alleges

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 29, 2018 7 min read
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The U.S. Constitution contains an implicit guarantee of an education, argues a new federal lawsuit, and the failure of public schools to prioritize civics is depriving students of that right and preventing them from effectively exercising other key rights, like voting.

The lawsuit is the latest in a recent wave to attempt to locate a constitutional right to an education—a holy grail of sorts for education advocates. But it’s a right that federal courts have been reluctant to recognize since, ruling more than 40 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court said that the Constitution’s 14th amendment equal-protection clause did not cover disparities in local school district funding.

Filed in the U.S. District Court for Rhode Island on behalf of more than a dozen students there, A.C. v. Raimondo alleges that the state has violated students’ rights under multiple sections of the U.S. Constitution by failing to provide an education “that prepares them adequately to vote, to exercise free speech, petition the government, actively engage in civic life and exercise all of their constitutional rights.”

The lawsuit advances several new legal theories to make this case. And while it doesn’t explicitly spell out just what would constitute adequate preparation for citizenship, it is clearly higher than the “minimally adequate” standard that has been used in a variety of state funding lawsuits.

“We have a much more robust definition of what basic education for citizenship is” compared to other education lawsuits filed in federal court, said Michael Rebell, the lead counsel on the case and an education law professor at Teachers College, Columbia University well known for his work on state level school-funding lawsuits. “And we’re going to be as creative as possible.”

Multiple Previous Attempts Nixed

Historically, the biggest stumbling block to this kind of litigation has been the precedent set in 1973’s San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that that the Constitution did not contain an educational guarantee under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

As a result, education funding lawsuits pivoted to states for the next 40 years, because nearly all enshrine a right to education in their own constitutions. Many of those lawsuits have been successful, and others less so.

But the tantalizing notion of having federal courts affirm an implied right to education in the U.S. Constitution has emerged again, not only because of its symbolism but also because it could force sweeping changes in many states. In recent years, high-powered education lawyers have been testing out a series of different approaches, in a variety of federal courts.

They argue that the much-cited Rodriguez case also opened the door to—but didn’t address—the question of whether the Constitution might guarantee some level of minimum education to become a productive citizen. In the intervening 40 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on that question; the new spate of lawsuits have sought to force an answer.

In a 2016, a legal team argued that the failure of Michigan to give Detroit students access to literacy instruction deprived them of their constitutional right to equal protection. A separate case seeking more school choice options in Connecticut, also filed in 2016, argued that students in poor-performing Connecticut schools were similarly deprived of equal protection under the 14th amendment. Both cases were nixed by federal district court judges.

The new lawsuit is broader in its aims and moves forward on several new prongs. For one, it explicitly ties the lack of civics education in Rhode Island to young people’s inability to exercise a host of constitutional rights

Links to Other Constitutional Rights

Not only does the lack of education fall afoul of equal protection—the argument the prior lawsuits have centered on—but it also contravenes the 6th and 7th amendments, which establish protections for a jury trial. In effect, the lawsuit says, citizens cannot effectively serve on a jury or be tried before one if they are not guaranteed an education capable of preparing them for that crucial duty.

In an unusual new feature, the lawsuit also says that Rhode Island has breached Article 4, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution—a portion of the document that has been rarely cited in modern legal arguments.

That section contains the a guarantee that every state will establish “a republican form of government.”

What’s an obscure section of the Constitution doing in this lawsuit? The theory of action behind this charge, though not elaborated on in the filing, appears to be derived from a Stanford Law Review article from earlier this year.

Written by Derek W. Black, a professor of law at the University of South Carolina, the law review article notes that the during Reconstruction, as the U.S. government began to approve Southern states’ acceptance back into the union, it forced those states that did not already have a public education system to guarantee one in their own constitutions to meet the Article 4, Section 4 requirement for a republican government.

And following the ratification of the 14th amendment, the U.S. government also required Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia to do the same, which means that the provision of education is implicit within the 14th Amendment, too, Black argued.

“I believe there’s an extremely strong, historically easy-to-see argument for why there’s a fundamental right to an education,” Black said in an interview. “I think there’s a better chance of getting a substantive answer out of the Section 4 claim than on the 14th Amendment claim made in the other cases ... Does that mean they’ll get one? No. But I think there’s a better chance.”

Black is not involved in the new litigation.

In a sense, then, the lawsuit’s arguments are as much historical as they are legal. The filing makes a point of emphasizing Horace Mann and other early public school advocates, whose purpose in setting up “common schools” was explicitly for preparing young citizens.

Education Week’s ongoing series, Citizen Z: Teaching Civics in a Divided Nation is now live! Check out the new stories.

The lawsuit also faults the standards movement of the past three decades for prioritizing reading and math at the expense of other subjects.

“Districts are cannibalizing civics education because they need to comply with standards in math and reading, and in order to be economically well off, you need both,” said Samuel Zurer, one of the lead lawyers for the plaintiffs.

The students in the lawsuit, all Rhode Island secondary students, said that they felt something was missing in their preparation. Too many classmates are apathetic or uninformed about their civic responsibilities, said senior Ahmed Sesay.

“At Classical High School, supposedly the best in the state—Blue Ribbon, U.S. News and all that—all those qualifiers still don’t get the school to recognize that a lot of students are leaving the best school in the state still unprepared for making actual adult decisions,” he said. “I’ve had students in class with me who are old enough to vote and would just be like, ‘I don’t want to because I don’t see how it’s going to affect me,’ or ‘I don’t think it’s going to change much.’”

In fact, while the plaintiffs could have filed the lawsuit in any federal court, they said in a press call with reporters that they selected Rhode Island thanks to a confluence of factors. The state does not require students to take or pass any civics courses or exams. (Education Week came to a similar conclusion in its recent survey of states’ high school history and civics requirements.) Several state-level lawsuits seeking to secure greater funding for Rhode Island schools have failed to gain traction in the state judiciary—in contrast to lawsuits in states like New Jersey, Washington, and Kansas. And the state pays for little teacher training in civics and government

Whatever the judge decides at the district court level is nearly certain to be appealed, and could ultimately reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

That’s more likely to happen if district courts reach different conclusions on the matter; earlier this week, the legal team bringing the Detroit case appealed the lower court’s decision.

Rebell said he’d welcome it if the Supreme Court combined and took up both cases.

Daarel Burnette II contributed reporting from Providence, R.I.

Image: Getty

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.