Written by Joanna Hughes

After taking two social studies classes during her four years of high school in Rhode Island, 17-year-old Aleita Cook had never taken civics, government or economics. While it’s easy to construe this as an injustice, a group of public school students and parents are asserting that it’s something more: a violation of their rights under the US Constitution. Here’s a closer look at the situation, as reported by the New York Times.

Key Questions Going Unanswered

According to Cook, her high school coursework failed to cover basic topics in modern citizenship, including everything from political parties to the point of taxes. Now, Cook has joined with others in filing a federal lawsuit against the state of Rhode Island alleging that the public school system failed to provide students with the skills necessary to “function productively as civic participants.” As such, argues the lawsuit, graduates are not equipped to vote, serve on a jury, or understand the political or economic state of the nation.

Toward Equal Access

While school districts are allowed to determine their own curricula regarding how to teach civics, the lawsuit highlights a disparity in which students from affluent towns come out ahead of their counterparts from poorer skills.

The issue is not isolated to Rhode Island. In fact, less than half of US states require schools to teach civics, while just 23 percent of American eighth graders are proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test which covers the Constitution and branches of government.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs hope that the case will eventually lead the Supreme Court to reconsider its equal access to education as a constitutionally guaranteed right. Lead lawyer Michael Rebell, professor of law and educational practice and executive director of the Center for Educational Equity, said, “Our real hope for reinvigorating our democratic institutions comes with the young people and the next generation. What we’re really seeking is for the courts, especially the Supreme Court, to take a strong stand on getting back to first principles on what the school system was established for in the United States.”

Cook, meanwhile, spoke to more personal goals. “We’re hoping we win this lawsuit and change it to where my younger brothers can have a really good education, and go into adulthood knowing how to vote, how to do taxes, and learning basic things that you should know going into the real world,” she said.

 

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.
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