On June 15, 2022, plaintiffs in Cook v. McKee joined Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green in jointly announcing that they will establish a Rhode Island Civic Readiness Task Force to consider specific measures to improve the quality of civics education in Rhode Island.
In addition, the Commissioner announced that she will establish a Diploma Seal of Civic Readiness to be awarded to graduating high school seniors who have completed a capstone project involving both research and active community involvement and have achieved high degrees of civics proficiency, as well as a civics award program that local education agencies (LEAs) can use to recognize middle school students who have demonstrated outstanding progress in civic readiness.
As a result of these commitments, plaintiffs agreed not to proceed with filing a petition for certiorari and attempt to appeal the dismissal of their suit by the First Circuit Court of Appeals to the United States Supreme Court. Cook v. McKee was a class action suit against the State of Rhode Island in which plaintiffs alleged that the State had breached their rights under the United States Constitution by failing to provide them with an education adequate to prepare them to become capable citizens.
“Our children deserve an education that will prepare them to lead full, rich lives both professionally and as citizens of our democracy,” said Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green. “The students involved in this case have gone above and beyond in advocating for their peers to get that type of education, and we are glad to be able to partner with them. Together, we are going to make Rhode Island a national example of excellence in civics education.
Michael A. Rebell, lead counsel for the plaintiffs and executive director of the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University, said, “As Judge Smith boldly stated in his decision in this case, 'American democracy is in peril,' and it is critical that all of our students are prepared to function as capable civic participants in order to sustain our democracy. We are pleased that the Commissioner has recognized this need and is committing to working with this important task force to accomplish this goal. We hope that other states will now take similar actions."
The Task Force, which will be created no later than September 1, 2022 and will be staffed by the Rhode Island Department of Education, will consist of a maximum of fifteen (15) members to be selected by the Commissioner from a broad array of stakeholders, including educators, parents, community members, students and advocacy organizations, as well as some of the plaintiffs in the recent lawsuit and their counsel.
The Civic Readiness Task Force will be charged with advising the Commissioner concerning:
The Task Force will be expected to submit an initial report and recommendations to the Commissioner by March 31, 2023.
On November 29, 2018, a class-action lawsuit was filed in federal court on behalf of Rhode Island students to establish public education as a right under the U.S. Constitution. The case, Cook (A.C.) v. McKee (formerly Cook v. Raimondo—renamed after former Governor Gina Raimondo left the office to become U.S. Secretary of Commerce), argues that the Constitution entitles all students to an education that prepares them to participate effectively in a democracy. It alleges that the state of Rhode Island is failing to provide tens of thousands of students throughout the state with the necessary basic education and civic-participation skills.
The plaintiffs are 14 high school, middle school, elementary school, and preschool students (or parents on behalf of their children). These students attend or will attend public schools in a variety of school districts throughout Rhode Island.
Plaintiffs claim that the defendants, state officials including RI governor Daniel J. McKee, continuously violate the 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause, “by denying [students] a meaningful opportunity to obtain a basic education necessary to prepare them to be capable voters and jurors, to exercise effectively their right of free speech and other constitutional rights, to participate effectively and intelligently in our open political system and to function productively as civic participants.”
Rhode Island District Court Judge William Smith heard oral arguments on the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case in December 2019. He issued his decision on October 13, 2020. Reluctantly dismissing the case, Judge Smith wrote:
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. What these young people seem to recognize is that American democracy is in peril. Its survival, and their ability to reap the benefit of living in a country with robust freedoms and rights, a strong economy, and a moral center protected by the rule of law is something that citizens must cherish, protect, and constantly work for. We would do well to pay attention to their plea….
Plaintiffs should be commended for bringing this case. 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.
On January 11, 2022, the First Circuit issued a decision affirming the District Court's judgment. They concluded their decision by "echoing the district court's observations.... that the students have called attention to critical issues of declining civic engagement and inadequate preparation for participation in civic life at a time when many are concerned about the future of American democracy. Nevertheless, the weight of precedent stands in the Students' way here...." Only the Supreme Court can resolve the ambiguities in the precedents that bear on this case, and Plaintiffs will now seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Plaintiffs are represented by a legal team led by Michael A. Rebell, professor of law and educational practice, and executive director of the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University. Rebell was lead attorney in the successful New York school-funding and educational-rights case, Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) v. State of New York. He has written many books on education law, including the recently published, Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts and Civic Participation.
RI-based co-counsel are Jennifer L. Wood, executive director of the Rhode Island Center for Justice, and Stephen Robinson and Samuel D. Zurier, 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.