PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Public school students and parents are suing Rhode Island’s governor and education officials in federal court, saying the state fails to prepare young people to fully participate in civic life.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday as a class-action complaint, asks the federal 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.
The governor’s office said it has been working to fix the fundamentals in the education system and it’ll review the lawsuit. State education Commissioner Ken Wagner said in a statement that while he can’t comment on the specifics of pending legislation, he supports efforts to secure more legal protections for student access to a quality education. Education rights are civil rights, he added.
High school senior Musah Mohammed Sesay, a co-plaintiff, said he hasn’t been exposed to even the basics of how to participate in democratic institutions. He said he wasn’t taught how local government works or how decision-makers are affected by the citizens they govern.
“Our school system in America is just inherently failing so many students because it’s not giving students the information they need to actively contribute to making changes in this country,” he said Thursday during a press conference in Providence about the lawsuit.
The Center for Educational Equity at Columbia University’s Teachers College and the Rhode Island Center for Justice filed the lawsuit. Michael Rebell, lead counsel and a professor at Teachers College, said citizenship has always been the prime purpose of education in the United States and schools have increasingly failed to carry out this responsibility nationwide.
Rhode Island, in particular, stands out because there is no requirement for students to take a civics course and no indication that teachers receive specialized training to teach the topic, among other issues, Rebell added. He said the case is timely because “we’re living in troubled times, our democratic institutions are being challenged like never before.”
“Our real hope for reinvigorating our democratic institutions lies with the young people,” he said.
Aleita Cook, a senior in Providence, said she agreed to be a co-plaintiff because she wants younger students to be better prepared for life after graduation.
“It’s really bigger than me,” she said. “I’m doing this for young students and for my little brothers going into the educational system.”
The lawsuit asks for a ruling declaring that all students nationwide have a constitutional right to an education that prepares them to be capable voters and jurors, to exercise effectively all of their constitutional rights and to participate effectively and intelligently in a democratic political system. The suit also asks the court to force the state of Rhode Island to address the situation through new laws or policies.
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