A lawsuit filed in a Rhode Island federal court this week by Michael Rebell, Teachers College Professor of Law & Education and Executive Director of the College’s Center for Educational Equity, could ultimately establish public education as a Constitutional right on par with due process and freedom of speech.
Brought on behalf of 14 Rhode Island public school students and their parents, the suit, Cook v. Raimondo, challenges a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declined to equalize school funding among two Texas districts because “education…is not among the rights afforded explicit protection under our Federal Constitution.”
That case, Rodriguez v. San Antonio, left open the possibility that the Constitution guarantees a right to “the basic minimal skills necessary for the enjoyment of the rights of speech and of full participation in the political process” – skills traditionally imparted through public education.
The suit filed by Rebell in the U.S. District Court of Rhode Island charges that diminished access to civic education poses a threat to the democratic ideals set out by the Founding Fathers. As evidence of that claim, it cites the finding that 50 percent of American adults are unable to identify the three branches of U.S. government.
The suit alleges that Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo and other state officials named as defendants have “violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution by denying the named plaintiffs and other members of the plaintiff class a meaningful opportunity to obtain a basic education necessary to prepare them to be capable voters and jurors, to exercise effectively their right of free speech and other constitutional rights, to participate effectively and intelligently in our open political system and to function productively as civic participants.”
Although the case targets Rhode Island, Rebell, who served as the lead attorney in a multi-year case that won additional funding for New York City’s schools, believes that the plaintiffs’ arguments could apply to the state of civic education in public schools nationwide.
The suit charges that diminished access to civic education poses a threat to the democratic ideals set out by the Founding Fathers. As evidence, it cites the finding that 50 percent of American adults are unable to identify the three branches of U.S. government.
A team of eight TC students and eight Columbia Law School students in Rebell’s “Schools, Courts and Civic Participation” course assisted in the preparation of Cook v. Raimondo.
“I’ve been thinking and working on this for a long time,” Rebell said in remarks to journalists. “This case is unique in my history of bringing litigation because I had the time and the resources to dig in and explore it in-depth.”
[Read a story from TC Today magazine on Rebell’s class and the preparation of the case.]
The filing in Rhode Island follows by five months a lower federal district court rejection of a case that contends that the funding, leadership and teaching in the Detroit Public Schools has denied students in the troubled district the Constitutional right to a “minimally adequate education.”
Attorneys representing students in the troubled Detroit school system have appealed the decision to the Sixth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals.
Rebell, in an amicus brief filed with the Sixth Circuit, raised points similar to those presented in the Rhode Island case, arguing that “most educators know what they need to do to prepare all of their students to function productively as civic participants. The core problem is that competing state statutory and regulatory mandates and resource inadequacies have established other educational priorities and have hampered the schools’ ability to prepare students properly for capable citizenship.”