FAQ

The lawsuit, Cook v. Raimondo, was filed on behalf of all students of Rhode Island to ask the federal court to confirm that, under the U.S. Constitution, all public school students have the right to an education that prepares them to carry out their civic responsibilities. These duties include voting, exercising free speech, serving on a jury, petitioning the government, actively engaging in civic life, and exercising all of their constitutional rights.

Preparing students to be capable citizens in a democratic society has traditionally been the main purpose of America’s public school system. Unfortunately, too many schools, particularly ones that serve students in poverty and students of color, are ill equipped to provide this type of education. Over the past half century, most schools have cut down on social studies and civics, and many have stopped providing students the experiences and opportunities they need to become capable citizens.

Educating all students to be knowledgeable, skilled, and committed participants in civic life is of critical importance to America’s democracy. However, educators and politicians are unlikely to make it a high priority and provide the resources necessary to accomplish this without judicial intervention.

Educators, parents, lawyers, and advocates in Rhode Island have been pressing for educational improvements for years. They have been frustrated by the failure of the state legislature and of the state courts to act to remedy blatant educational inadequacies. Rhode Island was chosen as the venue for this new federal litigation because the shortcomings of the state’s education system provide many clear examples to the courts of why judicial action is needed to ensure that students are receiving a proper civic education. For example, Rhode Island students are not required to take even a single civics course; schools lack resources for extracurricular activities prepare students for civic participation; and opportunities for English language learners throughout the state are especially limited.

The case was brought by 16 high school, middle school, elementary, and preschool students and their parents. The case bears the name of the first-named plaintiff, Aleita Cook. These students attend or will be attend public schools in a variety of school districts throughout the State of Rhode Island. The plaintiffs have brought the case on their own behalf and for a class of tens of thousands of similarly situated students throughout Rhode Island.

The case was brought by 16 high school, middle school, elementary, and preschool students and their parents. The case bears the name of the first-named plaintiff, Aleita Cook. These students attend or will be attend public schools in a variety of school districts throughout the State of Rhode Island. The plaintiffs have brought the case on their own behalf and for a class of tens of thousands of similarly situated students throughout Rhode Island.

The lead counsel for the plaintiffs is Michael A. Rebell, a professor of education law and practice and executive director of the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University. Rebell is an experienced litigator who was co-counsel for plaintiffs in Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) v. State of New York, a case that established a right to an opportunity for an education adequate to prepare all students to function productively as civic participants for all students in the State of New York. He has written many books on education law, including the recently published, Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts and Civic Participation.

Rhode Island-based counsel are Jennifer L. Wood, executive director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice, and a former counsel to the Rhode Island Department of Education, and Stephen Robinson and Samuel D. Zurier, experienced litigators who were counsel for plaintiffs in the two prior state court litigations that sought to establish a right to education under the Rhode Island state constitution.

Peter Neronha, the Attorney General of the State Rhode Island, is representing the governor and the legislative leaders; Anthony F. Cottone is the attorney for the commissioner of education, the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, and the Rhode Island State Board of Education.

Preparing students for capable and committed civic participation is -- or should be-- a national priority for everyone living in the United States. Some state courts have affirmed students’ right to an education adequate for capable citizenship under their state constitutions; other state courts have not. No state courts have taken active steps to enforce this right.

The United States needs a clear, strong, and uniform message that all students have a right to an education that prepares them properly to take on their roles as active citizens in our democratic society. That message can only be provided by the federal courts -- and ideally from the United States Supreme Court.

It is impossible to predict how the federal courts -- - and the U.S. Supreme Court should it agree to hear this case -- will rule. Our complaint does, however, present strong arguments under the equal protection, due process, privileges and immunities sections of the federal constitution to support our claims. Furthermore, in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez in 1973, the Supreme Court specifically indicated that there may be a right to capable citizenship under the U.S. Constitution but that the plaintiffs in that case did not provide sufficient evidence for the Court to consider that issue. We intend to provide such evidence so that this issue that the Court itself identified as being important can now be decided.

Civic education is a non-partisan issue. Every person living in the United States can recognize the importance to our democracy of having children prepared for civic life. Judges in particular, by the nature of their work and their commitment to constitutional values, tend to be especially supportive of civic ideals.

Within Rhode Island, victory would require the state to implement a plan to improve their educational system substantially and to ensure that all students receive an opportunity for an education adequate to prepare them for capable citizenship. A Supreme Court ruling that students have a fundamental right to such an education would also be binding on states and school districts throughout the country, and policymakers in each state would need to take whatever steps might be necessary to ensure that the educational opportunities provided to all of their students meet constitutional requirements.

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