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Rhode Island schools aren’t required to teach civics. A lawsuit wants to change that.

Roger Williams Middle School in Providence. (Ryan T. Conaty for the Boston Globe/File)
Roger Williams Middle School in Providence. (Ryan T. Conaty for the Boston Globe/File)Ryan T. Conaty

PROVIDENCE — A Rhode Island lawsuit being heard in US District Court on Thursday could lead to a national question: Does the US Constitution entitle all students to an education that prepares them to participate in a democracy?

There’s no requirement in Rhode Island public schools to teach civics, and the lawsuit filed last November on behalf of students and their parents alleges that their overall education is so inadequate that it violates their rights under the Constitution.

The lawsuit seeks to have the court to declare that all students have a constitutional right to an education that prepares them to become capable voters and jurors, and effective participants in a democratic society.

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It alleges that Rhode Island has “downgraded the teaching of social studies and civics,” and contends that the result is a population that doesn’t understand its rights or democracy.

“This is a national effort, because if we prevail in Rhode Island, it will have national implications for all public school students,” said attorney Jennifer L. Wood, executive director for the Rhode Island Center for Justice.

The plaintiffs are suing Governor Gina Raimondo, House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, the state Board of Education, Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green, and the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education.

The students in the lawsuit are from across Rhode Island, ranging from preschool to high school, and the lawyers are asking the court to maintain this as a class-action lawsuit.

“Preparing students to be capable citizens is of heightened importance today as many of our democratic institutions are being challenged and compromised, in large part because of wide-spread ignorance of their importance and of the public support that is necessary to maintain them,” the lawsuit argues.

The state is asking the federal court to dismiss the case, saying the plaintiffs haven’t explained precisely what they mean by “educational adequacy.”

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The state’s motion to dismiss, which Chief Judge William E. Smith will hear Thursday, argues that the plaintiffs are also suing the wrong parties. There is local control over schools, what’s taught, and how the money is spent, and the argument should be with local school committees, the state said.

“To be sure, a civics-based education is an important aspect of education, as is math, reading, and any other number of subjects, and Rhode Island law reflects this importance,” state lawyers argue on behalf of the governor, Mattiello and Ruggerio. “But a constitutional mandate that particular subjects be taught or certifications be required has no place within the constitutional framework and, if recognized, begs the question what other aspects of education must also be constitutionally recognized.”

The defendants also argue that the Rhode Island Supreme Court has twice held that controversial public policy choices about what’s taught in public schools are within the authority of the General Assembly.

The US Supreme Court has already emphasized that there is no fundamental right to education guaranteed under the Constitution, the defendants said. The argument goes back to 1973, when students from a poor school district in Texas sued their state because they said they weren’t getting the same education as those in wealthy school districts, and thus they were denied their right to an adequate education.

The Supreme Court ruled at the time that the state of Texas had not violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. However, the plaintiffs say, the court left open a door, by agreeing that if education inequality prevents students from their right to speak or vote, it may violate the Constitution.

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“That case was about funding equity. The court was not asked to address whether there is some measure of education in participation in democratic institutions,” said Wood.

That assertion of local control has since shifted, as the federal government has lodged more requirements, such as the Individual with Disabilities Education Act and No Child Left Behind, Wood said.

“The concept of local control is a moving target,” Wood said. “And most recently in Rhode Island, it takes on a new flavor, with the state asserting it has a right to take over the schools.”


Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com