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Federal class action suit filed in Providence seeks to establish constitutional right to an adequate education



“Most people think that students have a right to an adequate education under the United States Constitution,” said Michael Rebell, the lead counsel representing thirteen students and their families suing on behalf of all public-school students in Rhode Island. Rebell is also an education law professor and founding director of the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University. “Unfortunately, the federal courts have never held that there is such a right. Today, although 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, 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,” Rebell added. “This lawsuit asks the United States District Court in Rhode Island to make clear that all students in Rhode Island and throughout the United States have an enforceable constitutional right to an education that will truly prepare them to be capable civic participants in a democratic society.”

The students are seeking, “a guarantee under the United States Constitution to an education that prepares them fully to participate in civic life by voting, sitting on juries, exercising their Constitutional rights to free speech and involvement in government, and actively participating in civic life.”

The lawsuit asks the federal court to confirm the constitutional right of all public school students to a civic education that prepares them adequately to vote, to exercise free speech, petition the government, actively engage in civic life and exercise all of their constitutional rights under the 14th Amendment, and under Article 4, section 4, which requires the federal government to guarantee each of the states a “republican” form of government.

At a press conference held at the Rhode Island Center for Justice on Empire Street in downtown, plaintiffs, including Providence students and parents, spoke about the importance of the lawsuit.

“I feel that a lot of the things I should have learned in public school I didn’t learn,” said Ahmed Sesay, a senior at Classical High School in Providence. “For example, I never really had a dedicated civics class. We never went into depth about how local government works or how our decision makers are affected by the citizens that they are supposed to be governing… When you don’t teach civics and those things explicitly an blatantly, students feel left behind, or apathetic, or they feel that they can’t make a change.”

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“This case resonates with me because throughout my who education I’ve had an IEP, which is I’m in special ed,” said Aletia Cook, a senior at the Providence Career & Technical Academy. “Not until recently did my case manager tell me I can get out of that… I don’t want younger students going into high school going through the same thing that I’ve gone through. I want them to have the civics education. I want them going into the real world knowing what to do. Knowing how to pay taxes, how to apply for a job… It’s really bigger than me. I’m doing this for younger students, my little brothers going into the education system.”

“I’m here as a parent, an American History professor, I’m here as a member of the Providence School Board, and I’m here as a citizen,” said Mark Santow, who was not representing the Providence School Board. Santow quoted education philosopher (and Humanist) John Dewey, who said, “A society with too few independent thinkers is vulnerable to control by disturbed and opportunistic leaders. A society which wants to create and maintain a free and democratic social system must create responsible independence of thought among its young.

“Our United States Supreme Court has recognized that the denial of adequate education denies children the ability to live within the structure of our civic institutions and even denies them the possibility to contribute to ‘the progress of our nation.’ However for a variety of reasons the Court has stopped short of finding that all children have a fundamental right to that education that enables them to participate and succeed in all aspects of civic life as adults,” said local co-counsel Jennifer Wood, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice, “We are asking the federal court to affirm that all public school students have that right under the United States Constitution.”

The students and families are represented by local counsel Stephen Robinson and Sam Zurier, who have previously brought education rights challenges in state court, and Jennifer Wood and Jordan Mickman of the Rhode Island Center for Justice, a non-profit public interest law center founded in partnership with Roger Williams University School of Law.

Named in the suit are Governor Gina Raimondo, Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, Rhode Commissioner of Education Ken Wagner, the Rhode Island State Board of Education and the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education.

Raimondo was somewhat dismissive of the suit, saying in a statement from her communications director Mike Raia, “We will look at the lawsuit that’s been filed, but according to news reports, it appears similar cases have already been litigated two other times in state courts. We don’t have further comment on pending litigation and direct questions about the case to the Attorney General.”

The Speaker and the Senate President expressed similar sentiments in a joint statement courtesy of Senate Director of Communications Greg Pare: “We have received the class action complaint and it will be addressed in the judicial system.”

See: Are Civics Lessons a Constitutional Right? These Students Are Suing for Them

Q&A Videos:

Aleita Cook

Jennifer Wood

Michael Rebell

Mark Santow

Sam Zurier and Stephen Robinson

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.