Rhode Island Students May Take Fight for Civics Education to SCOTUS, Cite Jan. 6 Ignorance

A lawsuit from a group of students in Rhode Island is asking a federal appeals court to declare that public school students have a constitutional right to civics education. The plaintiffs said the January 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol are an example of what happens when students aren't taught such lessons.

Lawyers for the students argued that learning how to properly participate in the political process should be affirmed as a right. Otherwise, young people will be ignorant in matters of media literacy and unable to disseminate false information.

The students' brief to the court contends that judicial action needs to be taken immediately and declared that the insurrection in January was conducted by "a mob motivated by a fundamental misunderstanding of the Congressional role in counting electoral votes."

The suit asks that the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston overturn a lower court's previous dismissal of the case last year and send the case back to district court.

The defendants in the class-action lawsuit include Rhode Island's governor, the education commissioner and other education authorities. In a brief to the appellate court, the defendants' lawyer, Anthony Cottone, argued that legal precedent has established there is no fundamental right to education under the U.S. Constitution.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Rhode Island students
Students in Rhode Island asked a federal appeals court to affirm that all public school students have a constitutional right to a civics education. In this March 8, 2017 file photo, high school teacher Natalie O'Brien, center, hands out papers during a civics class called "We the People," at North Smithfield High School in North Smithfield, Rhode Island. AP Photo/Steven Senne, File

Musah Mohammed Sesay was a high school senior when he became a plaintiff in 2018. He said then that he hadn't been exposed to even the basics of how to participate in democratic institutions. He said he wasn't taught how local government works or how decision-makers are affected by the citizens they govern.

Moira Hinderer joined the lawsuit on behalf of her 10-year-old daughter, June. She has taken June to watch City Council meetings in Providence, and they visited the State House to see people give testimony. When they went together to the federal court for this case, June asked, "What's a judge, what's a court?"

"I just feel like a lot of that is on me as a parent, to try to explain these concepts to the best of my ability and show her how things work," said Hinderer, of Providence.

"Participating in democracy requires tools," she said Tuesday. "And if we are raising young people to become citizens in a democracy, that requires some thoughtfulness about how they're educated."

Cottone argues otherwise. The defendants' lawyer brief stated, "The appeal should be denied and dismissed and Rhode Island's sovereign right to determine what is taught in its schools preserved in accordance with Supreme Court precedent."

U.S. District Judge William Smith in Providence dismissed the lawsuit a year ago, ruling that while it is clearly desirable, and even essential, for citizens to understand their civic responsibilities, it's not something the Constitution contemplates or mandates.

But he warned of a "democracy in peril" and commended the students for bringing the case, which he said "highlights a deep flaw in our national education priorities and policies."

"Hopefully, others who have the power to address this need will respond appropriately," Smith wrote.

The plaintiffs' lead counsel, Michael Rebell, said Tuesday he always tells people it's the best decision he has ever lost because Smith helped make the case for why civic education is so important.

Rebell said the January 6 Capitol insurrection further shows why the right to an education adequate for capable citizenship is necessary for the survival of American democracy. Rebell is a law professor and executive director of the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University.

"Those who took part in the January 6 insurrection and even those who may have shown up there and supported a position but they weren't violent, I don't think they had any understanding of how the Electoral College works, what the role of Congress is vis-a-vis the president," he said. "Anybody who graduates from high school should have that kind of essential information. That's one of the big gaps we have in our current political standing on a massive scale in this country."

The students' complaint, filed in November 2018, also says minority and low-income students, and students learning English, are disproportionately affected by the disparities in opportunities for civic participation. The appeal, however, focuses on constitutional issues rather than that claim.

Rebell said he will petition the U.S. Supreme Court if the appeal is denied.

The defendants argue that the plaintiffs conflated the importance of education as a historic national value with its status as the source of a fundamental constitutional right, and that the state has established a framework and guidance to help ensure civics education is an important part of curricula. Furthermore, the plaintiffs' specific factual allegations would be better made to a local school board than a court, their brief states.

Rhode Island's governor signed legislation in July to require public school students to demonstrate proficiency, as defined by districts, in civics education and do at least one civics project, starting in 2022-23.

Mark Santow, who serves on the Providence School Board and joined the lawsuit on behalf of his son, described the new law as an unfunded mandate without much direction.

"It seems more important than ever for kids, no matter where they live, no matter who they are, to understand the rights and responsibilities of American citizens," Santow said Tuesday. "I don't know where kids are supposed to pick that up if they're not going to learn it at school."