Litigants on both sides of a federal lawsuit filed by students in Rhode Island that sought to establish the right to a civic education under the U.S. Constitution have ended the lawsuit with an agreement which both sides believe will strengthen civic education in the state.

Under an agreement in Cook v. McKee announced on June 10, the Rhode Island Department of Education will establish a civic education task force, including some of the student plaintiffs and their attorneys, which will advise and assist the state in better preparing its students to be involved, capable citizens in our democracy.

“This agreement sets the stage for significant improvement in civic education in Rhode Island,” said Michael Rebell, executive director of the Center for Educational Equity and Professor of Law and Educational Practice in the Department of Education Policy and Social Analysis, who led the plaintiffs’ legal team. “We are pleased that the Rhode Island Commissioner and Department of Education are taking these actions and we hope that other states will be inspired to take similar steps to prioritize civic education.”

Michael Rebell with Rhode Island students at the state courthouse in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Rebell)

As a result of the agreement, Rebell said the plaintiffs will not proceed with filing a petition for a review of the case by the U.S. Supreme Court. All parties will share final details at a press event which will take place next Wednesday, June 15 in Providence.

Filed by Rebell and local co-counsel in Providence in 2018 on behalf of 14 public school students in Providence, the class-action lawsuit argued that the U.S. Constitution entitles all students to an education that prepares them to participate effectively in a democracy. It alleged that Rhode Island was failing to provide tens of thousands of public school students throughout the state with the necessary basic education and civic-participation skills that they will need to meaningfully participate in activities that are guaranteed by the Constitution, such as exercising their free-speech rights and voting.

Rhode Island District Court Judge William Smith reluctantly dismissed the case in October 2020, writing that the lawsuit represented “a cry for help from a generation of young people who are destined to inherit a country which we—the generation currently in charge—are not stewarding well,” but that Constitutional law and legal precedent did not permit a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs.

The First Circuit affirmed the District Court's judgment last January but agreeing with Judge Smith that the student plaintiffs “have called attention to critical issues of declining civic engagement and inadequate preparation for participation in civic life at a time when many are concerned about the future of American democracy,” but that “the weight of precedent stands in the Students' way here...."

Plaintiffs decided not to seek review by the Supreme Court, opting instead to work with the Commissioner and the Rhode Island Department of Education on an agreement to conclude the case in a manner which will bring immediate benefits to students and will initiate an inclusive process that can ensure significant and lasting improvements in civic preparation.

Rebell’s legal achievements also include his work as co-counsel for New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights, which secured an agreement from New York State to fulfill $4.2 billion in promised funding to schools; and co-founding the Campaign for Fiscal Equity with State Senator Robert Jackson to help address inequitable school funding across New York.