Rhode Island will improve the way students are taught to participate in the political process in order to resolve a federal lawsuit over whether public school students have a constitutional right to a civics education, the state’s education department announced Friday.
The department said both sides in the suit have come to an agreement on how to strengthen Rhode Island’s civics education. The plaintiffs’ lead counsel, Michael Rebell, had been planning to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case— Friday was the deadline to do so.
Rebell said they’re hopeful that civics education will be greatly strengthened in Rhode Island and it will serve as a model for other states.
“Especially in these difficult political times that we’re living in, civics education is more important than ever,” he said. “And if this gets more attention on what schools can do, how they have a critical role in maintaining our democracy, then all our efforts would have been worth it.”
Lawyers for Rhode Island public school students and parents sued the governor and education officials in federal court in 2018. They argued that the state wasn’t preparing young people to fully participate in civic life and asked the federal court to confirm the constitutional right of all public school students to a civics education.
U.S. District Judge William Smith in Providence dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that while it is clearly desirable, and even essential, for citizens to understand their civic responsibilities, it’s not something the U.S. Constitution contemplates or mandates.
But he warned of a “democracy in peril” and commended the students for bringing the case, which he said “highlights a deep flaw in our national education priorities and policies.”
The plaintiffs asked the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston to reverse that ruling. They argued that a judicial declaration of a constitutional right to an adequate civics education was urgently needed, in light of the events of Jan. 6, 2021 at the U.S. Capitol that were carried out by “a mob motivated by a fundamental misunderstanding of the congressional role in counting electoral votes.”
The defendants told the appellate court that binding legal precedent has established there’s no fundamental right to education under the Constitution.
The court upheld Smith’s ruling in January. Rebell said then that only the Supreme Court can resolve the ambiguities in the case law regarding students’ rights to civic education and they would make their case there, on behalf of all public school students.
Rhode Island’s education department now plans to establish a civics education task force that will include some of the student plaintiffs and their counsel, to advise the state on how to better prepare students to be involved, capable citizens in a democratic and civil society. As part of the agreement, the plaintiffs will not petition the Supreme Court.
Gov. Dan McKee signed legislation last year to require public school students to demonstrate proficiency, as defined by districts, in civics education and do at least one civics project, starting in 2022-23.