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EDUCATION

14 students sued Rhode Island over civics education. Now, they’re more politically engaged than ever

Cook (A.C.) v. Raimondo was dismissed, but the plaintiffs have filed an appeal and are ready for the long haul

Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green held a homemade sign to greet students returning to Central High School in Providence in September.
Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green held a homemade sign to greet students returning to Central High School in Providence in September.Amanda Milkovits/The Boston Globe

PROVIDENCE — Mealaktey Sok, 18, says she never learned about the importance of voting in school. Neither did 19-year-old Nancy Xiong. “I didn’t care about it because I never learned about it,” Xiong said.

The two are among 14 current and former students from Rhode Island public schools who sued Governor Gina Raimondo and the state last year, claiming their schools failed to provide them an adequate civics education.

Their case, Cook (A.C.) v. Raimondo, came as both American democracy and the American public education system face severe challenges. Budget cuts have forced civics, social studies, and other subjects to take a back seat to boosting math and reading scores on standardized tests. Recent studies show that more than half of Americans cannot name the three branches of government or pass the USCIS Citizenship Test that roughly 90 percent of immigrants pass.

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Sok and Xiong were students at Classical High School, which is often ranked among the best public high schools in Rhode Island. There, like at many public schools across the country, the focus was on mastering math and reading, not civics. “It is not a priority or practice really anywhere in the school district,” said Mark Santow, a Providence School Board member and professor at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

Public education should “equip us with the tools to engage in democracy,” said Chanda Womack, founding executive director of the Alliance of Rhode Island Southeast Asians for Education (ARISE). In Womack’s experience as a “product” of Providence public schools, she said, “that didn’t happen at all.” She and her two children, along with Santow and his son, are also part of the lawsuit, which asked the court to agree that an adequate civics education is a constitutional right.

The lawsuit was filed in November 2018. Oral arguments were heard in December 2019, and on Oct. 13 the US District Court of Rhode Island dismissed their case. US District Judge William E. Smith wrote in his opinion and order that the lawsuit was “a cry for help from a generation of young people” but ultimately “the Court cannot provide the remedy Plaintiffs seek.”

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The plaintiffs filed an appeal Tuesday, beginning the second part of their federal challenge, which their co-counsel Jennifer Wood, executive director for the Rhode Island Center for Justice, called “an uphill climb.” They will file a brief in January 2021 and expect an oral argument to be scheduled for the spring.

Inequality makes the challenges faced by education systems across the nation much worse. Better-funded schools, including private schools, often offer more educational opportunities.

Santow’s family sees the disparity between private and public education first hand. His daughter went to a private middle school, and the difference between her experience and his public school-attending son was “night and day,” Satow said. While his daughter learned about activism and current events, his son “essentially had no civics education at all beyond what he got from living in our family.”

“By denying a really robust civics education to our public school students, especially in our cities, we’re just reinforcing racial inequality,” Santow said. “We are literally disenfranchising young people of color.”

Cook (A.C.) v. Raimondo has been a meta civics lesson in and of itself, a point the judge noted in his 55-page opinion.

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“This case does not represent a wild-eyed effort to expand the reach of substantive due process, but rather 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,” Smith wrote. He cited sources including past Supreme Court cases, news articles, books, a viral YouTube video highlighting racism in Arkansas, and even the song “One Last Time” from the Broadway musical “Hamilton.”

“The path of Supreme Court holdings that leads inevitably to the conclusion that this case must be dismissed is a civics lesson all its own, one worth contemplating as well in these fraught times,” he wrote. “Hopefully, others who have the power to address this need will respond appropriately.”

Smith commended the plaintiffs for bringing the case and for recognizing that “American democracy is in peril.” Michael Rebell, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, said that it’s rare to get this kind of appreciation from a judge as he dismisses a case.

Smith “really understood the points we were making and believed in them as strongly, if not more strongly, than we did,” Rebell said.

Peter Neronha, Rhode Island’s attorney general, said in a statement that “this case turned on the question of what type of education the state was constitutionally required to provide. And on that narrow question, we believe that the court correctly decided the manner.”

The court’s dismissal was “not a huge surprise” to Sigal Ben-Porath, professor of Education at Penn Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

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“Clearly, education is not written into the constitution,” Ben-Porath said. But, she explained, students can’t be equal members of a democratic society without being taught the knowledge and skills necessary to be a citizen.

Providence Public School system teachers have seen civics and social studies education downgraded over the years. “All of our accountability is based on math and reading scores,” said Maya Chavez, a social studies teacher at Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School. She said she’s hopeful that, in reforming Providence Public Schools, “they’re not going to just focus on the immediate needs, but they’re going to really look at the systemic issues that are underlying those needs.”

Federally mandated courses often get more attention and resources, Chavez said. But civics, Chavez argued, should be taught with the same, if not more, emphasis, as math and reading.

“When you’re pulled over by a police officer, is it going to be more important that you know the Fourth Amendment or that you know the Pythagorean Theorem?” she asked.

Civics teachers and advocates find it hard to have their voices heard. “I’ve been on endless curriculum-writing committees, I’ve been at teacher leader meetings, trying to push the district for civics education, and it just doesn’t go anywhere,” said Arthur Rustigian, a social studies teacher leader at Classical High School. Because there is no district or statewide civics requirement, the teachers who do include civics in their curriculum often do so voluntarily, Rustigian said.

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Laura Hart, director of communications for the Providence Public School district, said the district recently hired a supervisor of social studies and civics education to build out grade-appropriate civics curricula for K-12.

“While the majority of its high schools do offer civics education in some form,” Hart said, the district “acknowledges that additional work is needed to engage all students in the ongoing study of civics.”

In the meantime, lawmakers are stepping in to do what the court could not. A bill advocating for civics education and funding, called the Civic Literacy Act (H 7577), has already been introduced to the Rhode Island General Assembly for the 2021 legislative session.

The students involved in the lawsuit know that, win or lose, the case will not affect their education immediately. “The plaintiffs are well aware that this is sort of like a legacy project,” said Ben-Porath.

The process itself has been eye-opening. “Very few 15- to 20-year-olds go to a courthouse ever,” said Wood, the plaintiffs' co-counsel. “These young people are now very civically aware and engaged, but not through action taken in formal schooling.”

Santow said participating in the case taught his son how much of life is structured by politics, government, and inequality. The lawsuit has connected the civic lessons Santow has taught him with what he sees in the classroom every day.

And Santow said he has learned from the suit, too. He had never been inside a federal courtroom before the case’s oral arguments in December 2019.

“I learned in a more visceral way that the courts and the constitution can be a leverage for enormous change,” Santow said. “I knew that as a historian… but it’s very different to see it when they’re actually talking about your kids, your schools, your community, and real policy that affects real lives right in front of you.”

Womack, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and came to the United States as a child, said the lesson she learned was starkly different: “It further affirmed that these systems were not meant to serve Black and brown folks.”

Voting is a form of trying to create change, Womack said, and she voted in person on Election Day. “A big part of me feels empowered and privileged to cast a vote,” she said.

For Sok, a Smith College first-year who joined the lawsuit when she was 16, voting early in the presidential election this year felt “liberating.” She said she could feel herself overcoming the barriers that had kept her from exercising her rights as an American citizen.

“I am part of the change that I want to see,” Sok said. “I hope that the state of education improves, and that everyone has the same opportunities.”

The dismissal of their case not the end of the road for the plaintiffs, they said.

“Every child, every student, should have a quality education no matter where you are,” said Xiong, who is now a first-year student at Rhode Island College.

“We’re not giving up anytime soon,” Sok said. “Everyone is still fighting.”