Is Civics Education a Constitutional Right?

The U.S. public school system was created, in large part, to prepare young people to be capable, engaged citizens. Since the mid-20th century, however, most schools have neglected their responsibility to prepare students for civic participation: it’s been well-documented that high school students throughout the country are graduating with, at best, minimal knowledge about government and their individual role in an effective democracy.

Teens in Rhode Island, calling this neglect a violation of their constitutional rights, have filed a class action lawsuit. Lead Attorney Michael Rebell, Executive Director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University’s Teachers College, is better known for a years-long battle, eventually won, to prove that New York State’s persistently inadequate funding of NYC schools denies students their right to a sound, basic education. That earlier case made a related argument that a sound, basic education is one that, among other things, prepares students for civic life.

The lawsuit argues that Rhode Island is violating students’ constitutional rights by leaving many without the skills and knowledge they need to exercise basic civic responsibilities, such as voting or jury duty. The state does not mandate civics, does not train teachers in this subject, and does not measure students on their knowledge of civics. In fact, only 23 percent of Rhode Island students passed a national civics test designed to measure their basic civics knowledge and skills.

As a recent article in the Christian Monitor explains, the case “goes to the heart of the relationship between education and the American experiment.” In essence, it’s is a fight about who is being prepared to participate in our democracy, and who is not. The neglect of civics education is widespread among public schools but even more extreme in schools serving lower-income communities of color which are far less likely to have the resources needed to provide civics education – or related enrichment such as debate, school newspaper, mock trials- than schools located in wealthier districts, serving predominately white families.

These inspiring Rhode Island teens and their families are asking us to consider some pretty fundamental questions about our democracy: is it working as intended and who is it for? We look forward to following and sharing the progress of this momentous case.