Students in Rhode Island are asking a federal appeals court to affirm that all public school students have a constitutional right to a civics education, saying that they aren't taught how to meaningfully participate in a democratic and civil society and that the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol was a symptom of such ignorance.
Students nationwide need to know how to participate in the political process, effectively exercise their constitutional rights and learn skills like media literacy to distinguish accurate from false information, their lawyers argue.
The plaintiffs have asked the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Boston, to reverse a lower court's dismissal of the case, declare there’s a constitutional right to an adequate civics education, and send the case back to district court.
Such a judicial declaration is urgently needed, their brief to the court argues, in light of the events of Jan. 6 that were carried out by “a mob motivated by a fundamental misunderstanding of the congressional role in counting electoral votes.”
Oral arguments will be heard Monday.
Musah Mohammed Sesay was a high school senior when he became a plaintiff in 2018. He said then that he hadn’t been exposed to even the basics of how to participate in democratic institutions. He said he wasn’t taught how local government works or how decision-makers are affected by the citizens they govern.
Moira Hinderer joined the lawsuit on behalf of her 10-year-old daughter, June. She has taken June to watch City Council meetings in Providence, and they visited the State House to see people give testimony. When they went together to the federal court for this case, June asked, “What’s a judge, what’s a court?”
“I just feel like a lot of that is on me as a parent, to try to explain these concepts to the best of my ability and show her how things work,” said Hinderer, of Providence.
“Participating in democracy requires tools,” she said Tuesday. “And if we are raising young people to become citizens in a democracy, that requires some thoughtfulness about how they’re educated.”
The defendants include Rhode Island's governor, education commissioner and other education authorities. Their lawyer, Anthony Cottone, told the appellate court in a brief that binding legal precedent has established there’s no fundamental right to education under the U.S. Constitution.
“The appeal should be denied and dismissed and Rhode Island’s sovereign right to determine what is taught in its schools preserved in accordance with Supreme Court precedent,” the brief states.
U.S. District Judge William Smith in Providence dismissed the lawsuit a year ago, ruling that while it is clearly desirable, and even essential, for citizens to understand their civic responsibilities, it's not something the 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.”
“Hopefully, others who have the power to address this need will respond appropriately,” Smith wrote.
The plaintiffs’ lead counsel, Michael Rebell, said Tuesday he always tells people it's the best decision he has ever lost because Smith helped make the case for why civic education is so important.
Rebell said the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection further shows why the right to an education adequate for capable citizenship is necessary for the survival of American democracy. Rebell is a law professor and executive director of the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University.
"Those who took part in the Jan. 6 insurrection and even those who may have shown up there and supported a position but they weren't violent, I don't think they had any understanding of how the Electoral College works, what the role of Congress is vis-a-vis the president,” he said. “Anybody who graduates from high school should have that kind of essential information. That's one of the big gaps we have in our current political standing on a massive scale in this country.”
The students' complaint, filed in November 2018, also says minority and low-income students, and students learning English, are disproportionately affected by the disparities in opportunities for civic participation. The appeal, however, focuses on constitutional issues rather than that claim.
Rebell said he will petition the U.S. Supreme Court if the appeal is denied.
The defendants argue that the plaintiffs conflated the importance of education as a historic national value with its status as the source of a fundamental constitutional right, and that the state has established a framework and guidance to help ensure civics education is an important part of curricula. Furthermore, the plaintiffs’ specific factual allegations would be better made to a local school board than a court, their brief states.
Rhode Island's governor signed legislation in July 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.
Mark Santow, who serves on the Providence School Board and joined the lawsuit on behalf of his son, described the new law as an unfunded mandate without much direction.
“It seems more important than ever for kids, no matter where they live, no matter who they are, to understand the rights and responsibilities of American citizens,” Santow said Tuesday. “I don’t know where kids are supposed to pick that up if they’re not going to learn it at school.”