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.
On January 11, 2022, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit issued a decision affirming the lower court's dismissal of the Complaint. The plaintiffs are now in the process of filing a petition seeking review of the case by the U.S. Supreme Court.