Judge rules against students seeking better civics education

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit brought by a group of Rhode Island school children demanding a better civics education in the nation’s public schools, but in the same decision praised the students for bringing attention to the issue and lamented the delicate state of American democracy.

The class-action lawsuit filed in November 2018 by 18 plaintiffs asked the court to confirm the constitutional right of all public school students to a civics education that prepares them adequately to vote, exercise free speech, petition the government and actively engage in civic life in a democratic society.

U.S. District Court Judge William Smith in his 55-page ruling released Tuesday said that right has not been recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But, he also warned of a “democracy in peril” and referenced the global coronavirus pandemic, the killing of George Floyd and media reports about tweets from President Donald Trump that suggested the upcoming election should be postponed because of perceived voter fraud.

“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,” he wrote. “What these young people seem to recognize is that American democracy is in peril.”

Michael Rebell, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, and lead attorney for the students, said the decision would be appealed to a higher court.

“Judge Smith has written the most eloquent and forceful justification I’ve ever read for why American democracy is in peril and why America may not ‘survive as a country’ if our students don’t obtain a civic education adequate to allow them to meet that challenge,” he said in a statement.

The defendants in the case were several state political leaders, including Gov. Gina Raimondo, as well as former state Education Commissioner Ken Wagner.

Current Commissioner Angelica Infante-Greene also praised the students for bringing the suit, but defended the state’s civics education.

The suit “did not fairly depict the state of civics education in the state,” she said in a statement.

“However, I join Judge Smith in commending the plaintiffs for bringing the suit and calling attention to a critical issue and challenging all of us working in the field to do better,” she said.

Smith, in his conclusion, called on the country to address the students’ concerns.

“Plaintiffs should be commended for bringing this case,” he said. “It highlights a deep flaw in our national education priorities and policies. The court cannot provide the remedy plaintiffs seek, but in denying that relief, the court adds its voice to plaintiffs in calling attention to their plea. Hopefully, others who have the power to address this need will respond appropriately.”

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