Social Studies

Students Deepen Access to Civics Education In Hard-Fought Legal Battle

By Catherine Gewertz — June 15, 2022 5 min read
A multiple exposure of a wooden gavel and a long row of columns from a courthouse.
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A Rhode Island lawsuit that has been widely watched for its potential influence on civic education has been settled, averting escalation to the U.S. Supreme Court, and setting up a new system to guide civics instruction in the state, attorneys and state officials announced Wednesday.

The agreement to settle Cook v. McKee means that it will not reach the U.S. Supreme Court as the plaintiffs had planned. Instead, by Sept. 1, the Rhode Island department of education will create a new task force that will shape the state’s new approach towards civic education. The panel of 15 will include some of the students who have been plaintiffs in the lawsuit, as well as parents, community members, and representatives from advocacy groups and the state department of education.

The state will also establish a “seal of civic readiness” diploma that will be awarded to graduating seniors who excel in civics and complete a capstone project that will fuse research with civic action. (At least five other states offer similar diploma seals in civics.) In addition, the state will create a new award program which local districts can use to recognize middle school students for achievement in “civic readiness.”

At a press conference, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green turned to the students in the audience who’d been plaintiffs in the lawsuit and said: “It takes a lot of courage to stand up and advocate for your peers.”

Because of the students’ “tenacity and their bravery,” she said, “we now have an agreement that will strengthen civics education across the state of Rhode Island.”

The agreement arrives on a roiling landscape for curriculum and instruction. In the last couple of years, many states have enacted legislation that restricts what teachers can say about topics such as race and gender, which often dovetail with history and civics education.

Filed in Providence in 2018, the class action represented one of the handful of cases that have sought, so far unsuccessfully, to establish a right to education in the U.S. Constitution. In this case, attorneys sought to establish students’ entitlement to the basic tools and skills they need to participate effectively in a democracy.

The plaintiffs claimed, among other things, that Rhode Island didn’t require students to complete any civics or history classes or take any exams in those subjects, and didn’t offer enough opportunities to participate in extracurricular civics activities. They also argued that civics instruction was deficient for English-learners, hobbling their chances to be actively involved in their adopted homeland.

Michael Rebell, who led the plaintiffs’ case as executive director of the Center for Educational Equity and Professor of Law and Educational Practice at Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York, said Wednesday that while the lawsuit failed to establish that right under the U.S. Constitution, it has helped elevate the need for good civic education, and has created a mechanism for change in Rhode Island.

“The point is not so much the lawsuit,” he said at the news conference. “The point is the issue. That’s what we want to get out there.”

A new avenue planned for the constitutional fight

Rebell told Education Week that he plans to pursue the issue in state courts, because more than 30 states have established, through their constitutions or court rulings, a right to education.

“State constitutions are much more fertile ground for this,” he said. “In federal court, it’s an uphill battle because you’re trying to establish a new right.”

The case stumbled at both the trial and appeals court levels.

A U.S. District Court judge in Rhode Island dismissed the case in October 2020, concluding that existing law and precedent didn’t allow a ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor. But Judge William Smith wrote that the case represented “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.”

Last January, a unanimous three-judge panel of the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Smith’s ruling. Like Smith, the judges supported the students’ goals, but said their arguments weren’t supported by the law.

“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,” the panel wrote. “Nevertheless, the weight of precedent stands in the students’ way here, and they have not stated any viable claim for relief.”

A to-do list for for new civics task force

Even though those decisions went against the plaintiffs, Rebell said they are valuable because they created a “context” that can be “a motivator, inspiration and resource going forward, not only in Rhode Island, but other parts of country.”

Representatives from both sides of the case announced the principles of the agreement on Wednesday that will settle the case, but it has not yet been submitted to a court for approval.

The task force already has a menu of things to explore, including adding a half-credit course in middle and high school that would focus on media literacy. It will explore effective ways to support students in having respectful conversations on controversial topics with people whose views differ from their own.

The panel will also forge a definition of “civic readiness” that will include civic knowledge, skills, experiences, and mindsets. And it will assist with implementing a state law signed last September, which makes civic education proficiency a graduation requirement, and requires school districts to provide a student-led civics project in middle or high school.

Derek W. Black, a professor who specializes in education law at the University of South Carolina, said the new Rhode Island task force can play an important role in continuing the national conversation about the civic skills and knowledge students need to participate in their democracy.

“We need to have conversations that heighten public awareness,” he said. “If this task force is going to talk about what it means to be a citizen, and to engage lawmakers and communities in that, then I’m all for it. We’ve been running from these conversations. Hopefully the task force can help move us into them.”

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