On November 28, 14 students and parents filed a class action law suit asking the U.S. District Court in 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. Cook v. Raimondo.
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 that time. 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.
Michael A. Rebell, Executive Director of the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University is lead counsel for the plaintiffs. Jennifer Wood, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice, and Stephen Robinson and Sam Zurier, the attorneys who had unsuccessfully petitioned the Rhode Island Supreme Court to find a right to adequacy under the state constitution, are co-counsel. Rebell said that:
Today when our democratic institutions are being directly challenged, it is more important than ever that the schools carry out their traditional responsibility to prepare all of their students to participate effectively in our democratic institutions; unfortunately, most schools are failing to do so. The current generation of politicians and policymakers is too set in their ways to lead us out of the morass of polarized politics. A revitalization of American democracy will require the knowledgeable and committed engagement of the younger generation.
A pending case in Michigan, Gary B. v. Snyder, is 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.