“What concerned me was that the lawyers who work for the Rhode Island Department of Education were saying that education is not a right, and they kept repeating it,” said Symone Burrell, a 19-year-old now attending CCRI. “It’s kind of scary that people responsible for running our education believe that.”
United States District Court Judge William E. Smith held a hearing on the State of Rhode Island’s motion to dismiss Cook (A.C.) v Raimondo on Thursday, giving the lawyers for both sides the opportunity to make statements and answer questions about whether the case should move forward to the trial phase. The class-action lawsuit alleges that the state’s failure to provide students with an adequate civics education violates their federal constitutional rights.
Columbia professor and lawyer Michael Rebell filed the lawsuit in federal court last November, along with the Rhode Island Center for Justice, on behalf of all public school students in the state of Rhode Island. The defendants––the Rhode Island Department of Education, Governor Gina Raimondo, the General Assembly leadership, and the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education––filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in March.
The courtroom was packed for the hearing with students, parents, reporters, and other interested parties. Rebell, the plaintiff’s lawyer, said that he faced a “hot bench:” Judge Smith seemed very interested in the lawsuit.
The guiding questions of the hearing were whether the federal court system is the proper place to litigate the rights of Rhode Island students to an education, and whether the United States Supreme Court has preempted the possibility that there exists a federal, constitutional right to an education. However, Smith’s questions extended beyond these legal technicalities to whether the United States’ decentralized education system has failed public school students across the country.
“Is it possible to conclude that the federalist experiment in education has failed?” Judge Smith asked Rhode Island Assistant Attorney General Michael Field.
The answer to that question is beyond the scope of the case, Field told the judge.
How do we know if the experiment has failed? Smith asked.
Field responded by arguing that it is not the role of the federal courts to determine what constitutes an adequate education. Making such a ruling, Field argued, would open the floodgates for litigation on this question.
Smith posed this argument to Rebell: “How will this not embroil the federal courts in unending litigation on the particulars,” of what it means to provide a civic education?
“We are asking for a judicial declaration of federal rights,” Rebell said, arguing that such a declaration would not create an explosion in litigation. That is, Rebell is asking the court to declare that there is a constitutional right to a civics education, not to stipulate what civics education curriculum would be sufficient to meet that right.
Most of the hearing relied heavily upon a United States Supreme Court decision from 1973 in the case San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez. While the Supreme Court ruled in that case that the United States Constitution does not specifically require states to fund public schools, Rebell says the Court did leave open the question of whether there exists a right to a minimal level of education in order to enable the exercise of other constitutional rights. “The question is left open,” Rebell told the judge, and allowing A.C. v. Raimondo to proceed to the trial stage would allow Rebell to make the case that such a right does exist.
The lawyers for the state of Rhode Island stated a number of times that there is clearly no constitutional right to an education, in contrast to Rebell’s reading of the Rodriguez decision.
Smith also asked Rebell whether the federal court system was the correct place to be litigating the issue of civics education in Rhode Island. The state’s lawyers argued that this was a question for state legislatures, and past federal case law requires that plaintiffs must show that they have exhausted all other possibilities for remediation before bringing a case in federal court.
“It seems that the federal courts should be the last place” where questions about education policy are litigated, Smith said to Rebell.
“With all due respect,” Rebell replied, “this is the last place.”
Following the hearing, Rebell, the Center for Justice lawyers, and a number of Rhode Island public school students held a press conference.
When asked about their impressions of the hearing, a number of students pointed out that the most extensive civics education they had ever received was in the courtroom that morning.
Symone Burrell, a 19-year-old now attending CCRI said, “What concerned me was that the lawyers who work for the Rhode Island Department of Education were saying that education is not a right, and they kept repeating it. It’s kind of scary that people responsible for running our education believe that.”
Jayson Rodriguez, a junior at the Met High School, said, “there were certain points where I was really on my feet, really interested to hear what people were going to say. Overall, being in that courtroom really pushed forward my desire to pursue the path of becoming a lawyer, and to eventually understand the vernacular that these people are using, because right now I don’t, because I don’t have a civics education.”
Rebell said that federal judges usually take about three months to publish a decision on a motion to dismiss, but that he was optimistic about his chances that the case would move forward, given Judge Smith’s demonstrated interest in the case. If Smith denies the motion to dismiss, the lawsuit will move forward to the trial stage. (The state could also appeal a denial of the motion.)
While the case proceeds, some of the students are taking matters into their own hands. Kailyn Ozuna, a sophomore at Met High School, is running for class president. She said that she wants to create a class at her school for students to learn about civics, since the state has failed to do so.