Major Federal Right to Education Lawsuit Filed in the U.S
Michael Rebell 12th December 2018

Last month, 14 students and parents filed a class action law suit, Cook v. Raimondo, asking the U.S. District Court in the state of Rhode Island to declare that all students in Rhode Island–and all students throughout the United States–have a right under the U.S. Constitution to an education adequate to prepare them to be productive citizens, capable of effectively exercising their rights to vote, to serve on juries, to petition the government, and to participate in civic affairs.

At the core of the plaintiffs’ claim is an issue that the U.S. Supreme Court left open in its 1973 decision in San Antonio Ind’t Sch. Dist. v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, and has never addressed since. Although the Court held there that there is no right to equity in school funding under the federal constitution, the Court left for another day the issue of whether there may be a right to basic level of education needed for capable citizenship under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Cook plaintiffs are also raising additional claims under the due process and privileges and immunities clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Sixth and Seventh Amendments and under Art. 4, section 4 of the U.S. Constitution that guarantees that there will be a “republican form of government” in each state.

The 45-page complaint alleges that public schools were established in the United States 200 years ago because the founders recognized that the unique experiment in democratic government that they were establishing could not survive if its citizens were not educated sufficiently to undertake the responsibilities of democratic citizenship.

Over the past half century, however, most American schools have substantially neglected their responsibility to prepare students for civic participation. Policy makers and educators, have downgraded the teaching of social studies and civics, focusing in recent decades on basic reading and math instruction and on the economic value of education to individual students.

Claiming that basic democratic values and institutions are being challenged today in the United States as never before, the plaintiffs argue that schools, being dedicated to rational inquiry, open discussion and perpetuating democratic values provide the best hope for re-vitalizing American democracy, and that it is, therefore, imperative that the schools rise to occasion and prepare students to meet the challenges of democratic citizenship in the 21st century.

A pending case in Michigan, Gary B. v. Snyderis also asking the federal courts to rule on the education for citizenship issue left open in Rodriguez.  That case emphasizes the importance of basic literacy as a pre-requisite for capable citizenship. The Rhode Island complaint, in addition to raising a broader array of constitutional claims, advances a more robust definition of preparation for citizenship that includes not only basic literacy but also substantial civic knowledge, civic skills, civic experiences and civic values.

The Michigan District Court last summer granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case. Finding a technical standing problem, the judge there did not rule on the core constitutional issue raised by the Rodriguez precedent. The Michigan plaintiffs have now asked the United States District Court for the Sixth Circuit to reverse that decision and send the case back to the trial court to consider the substantive constitutional issues.

Michael A. Rebell, Executive Director of the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University and lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the Rhode Island case expects that the defendants there will also file a motion to dismiss their complaint. Such motions, in which the courts assume for purposes of the motion that all facts alleged by the plaintiffs are true, focus exclusively on the major legal issues, i.e. in this case, whether there is indeed a right to an education adequate for citizenship under the U.S. Constitution. Assuming that defendants proceed with such a motion, Rebell expects the Rhode Island judge to decide it relatively quickly, that the losing party will then appeal his decision to the U.S. Circuit Court for the First Circuit and that the losing party there will then petition the U.S. Supreme Court to make a final decision on whether the right to education does indeed exist under the U.S. Constitution.

The U.S. Supreme Court has the discretion to accept or deny jurisdiction of the case, but one of the main criteria the Court uses to decide whether to hear cases is whether there is a conflict among rulings of the Circuit Courts of Appeal on a major constitutional issue. With suits now pending in both the First and Sixth Circuits, such an outcome is a distinct possibility.

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