What They Don’t Know Will Hurt Them

On November 28, 2018, students of different ages in attendance at different schools around the state of Rhode Island filed suit against the Governor of Rhode Island and several other Rhode Island state representatives for failing to provide them with an adequate education in civics. These student plaintiffs filed a class action suit in the United States District Court of Rhode Island, claiming to represent thousands of students around the state and seeking a declaratory judgement about their rights to an education in civics. Furthermore, the students are seeking injunctive relief from the court to prevent Rhode Island from failing to meet certain education standards with regard to understanding their rights and obligations of citizenship at local, state, national, and global levels. While the Rhode Island Supreme Court has twice refused to hear similar suits, the students are hoping for a different outcome in federal court.

The students claim that a majority of the school systems in Rhode Island have failed to properly educate them in the areas of the United States Constitution, national government, and the three independent branches of our government, areas commonly known as civics and government class. In their complaint, they claim that the school systems choose to focus solely on reading, math and science. Furthermore, Rhode Island schools fail to teach their students how to properly analyze and discuss important political issues. The students claim that schools to do not offer opportunities for students to practice proper civic skills through activities such as school government, debate teams, mock trials, etc. The students also claim that the schools do not teach or promote an American character which encompasses civil service and community integration.

Among their allegations, the students accuse Rhode Island of violating their Fourteenth Amendment rights of Equal Protection, Due Process, and right of Privileges and Immunities. Because they have not acquired a proper education from school, the students claim that they are not prepared to (1) be capable voters and jurors, (2) exercise their constitutional rights, (3) participate effectively and intelligently in the American open political system, or (4) function productively as civic participants. Also, the plaintiffs believe that the state’s actions have violated their Sixth and Seventh Amendment rights, because they will not be able to be judged by well-informed and knowledgeable jurors in a court of law. Finally, the plaintiffs claim that their right to a republican form of government under Article Four, Section Four of the United States Constitution has been violated because they will not be able to effectively maintain a republican form of government if they are improperly educated in how to participate in such a government.

I commend and respect these students’ attempt to bring a change to the current education system of our youth. Based on the factual background of this complaint and my own experience, it is apparent that students do not understand, nor do they necessarily appreciate, the importance of their participation in our government and political system. Like this complaint states, our government, from local to state to federal, relies on knowledgeable citizens’ active participation to ensure its existence. That knowledge comes from experience that starts in school.

However, with respect to the United States Constitution and the organization of our government, the ability of the judicial branch to rule on such issues of education appear limited. The primary concerns are whether the United States District Court has authority to hear such a complaint. The students first request the court to make a declaratory judgement about what rights students have to an education and what type of education schools must provide as a part of that right. This type of request appears to be a request for the court to make an advisory opinion. However, under Article III of the United States Constitution, federal courts may only hear cases or controversies and may not give advisory opinions when there is no case or controversy. In this complaint it appears that the students are requesting the court to give guidance to the legislature on what topics must be included in a given education plan and how they should be implemented. Within that request lies no apparent case or controversy.

There are also issues regarding constitutional standing, which may prohibit this suit from being heard. Constitutional standing requires injury, causation, and redressability. Within this complaint I struggle most to see how a request for injunctive relief can give redress to the students in this class. Even if the court was to implement certain educational requirements for Rhode Island (and ultimately other states) to follow, it would undoubtedly take a lot of time to properly train teachers and create an acceptable education plan. This means that many students will have graduated with the injury of an inadequate education in civics with no true relief. However, because this is a class action, it could be argued that several students would still be in school and would benefit from some type of redress.

The other foreseeable obstacle is that the court may consider this complaint to be a political question and assign the issue to the legislative branch of government. Like the complaint states, the Rhode Island Supreme Court previously ruled that this issue is best left to the legislature. According to the complaint, all students may have a right to receive an education. However, the students appear to be asking the court to produce guidelines for a civics education plan, and that appears to be outside the realm of the court’s ability. Given that the legislative branch is likely the one responsible for producing educational guidelines, it follows that it should be the one to address this issue.

While there are foreseeable problems with getting this suit to be heard in court, it is a move in the right direction. Also, bringing this suit in a federal venue was a clever move. It will most likely bring this issue to national attention and to a larger forum of the public eye. The two cited Rhode Island state court cases probably lacked this national attention. Consequently, even if this suit is not heard in court, the problem we are facing right now with our educational system, a lack of civic understanding, will garner a much larger audience. Hopefully, this suit will come to the attention of state and federal legislatures nationally and compel them to make changes to properly educate our students and prepare them to be knowledgeable and participating citizens in our communities. To continue, a free government relies on the open understanding by its citizens of their virtue and knowledge of their fundamental rights. To quote Abraham Lincoln, it is a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

You can see the entire complaint here: https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/5331442/Schoolsuit.pdf

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