What does a district court ruling mean for future right-to-education cases?

Table of Contents

Dive Brief:

  • In a 55-page decision, a Rhode Island District Court judge dismissed Cook v. Raimondo, a prominent right-to-education case in which plaintiffs  who ranged from preschoolers to high school students — sued Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner and the state Board of Education. 
  • Plaintiffs argued the state failed to provide an education that adequately prepared students to participate in civic life. In motions to dismiss the case, defendants argued the Constitution does not guarantee a right to education.
  • While Judge William E. Smith ruled in favor of the the education commissioner and the board, among other state leaders, he said the case “highlights a deep flaw in our national education priorities and policies” and hoped “others who have the power to address this need will respond appropriately.” 

Dive Insight:

The decision follows a landmark April decision in a Michigan right-to-read case, where a federal judge ruled Americans have “a fundamental right to a basic minimum education.” While the decision led to a major settlement between the state and students in the Detroit Public Schools Community District, briefly bolstering plaintiffs in other right-to-education cases, judges essentially wiped out its precedent-setting effect after vacating the case. 

The latest decision in the Rhode Island case left open “a legal road to appeal” that plaintiff attorney Michael Rebell said has the potential to end at the steps of the Supreme Court, decades after justices in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez decided education was not a constitutional right.

Judge Smith, in his decision for Rhode Island, suggested the Supreme Court left the door open in that case “only a crack” for future litigation over education that is “totally inadequate.” 

Rebell said he will appeal the Rhode Island decision to the First Circuit. From there, he said it will likely be further appealed and believes the Supreme Court “may well be very interested in this case,” considering Chief Justice Roberts’ 2019 year-end report decrying waning focus on civics education and Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch’s emphasis on civics ed prior to joining the bench.

However, Rocco E. Testani, an education attorney, thinks it’s unlikely the court would find civics education to be a fundamental right under the Constitution and that the Supreme Court would pick up the case without a split in the lower courts.

Erica Frankenberg, a professor and director for the Center for Education and Civil Rights at Pennsylvania State University, said while she doesn’t think the Raimondo decision “is a closed book,” it could influence how future arguments are constructed to fit through that “narrow crack.”

Experts also said there are other ways to achieve the same outcomes of improved education without years of litigation that are often not resolved until long after the students in question have graduated. While Testani said effective change is possible through policy changes and increased accountability, Frankenberg pointed out the students often impacted by right-to-education cases are already marginalized and can’t form a majority coalition.

“[Leaders] are not going to [prioritize it] in my opinion, unless they get a shove from the courts,” Rebell said. “We need that intervention.”

Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green of the Rhode Island Department of Education, who inherited the case from Wagner, told Education Dive in statement that Rebell’s party “did not fairly depict the state of civics education in the state” but commended the plaintiffs for “calling attention to a critical issue and challenging all of us working in the field to do better.” 

In the Raimondo case, the civics education lawsuit was dismissed before any fact-finding. If anything, Frankenberg said, that case and others could set the political agenda around the funding of schools.

The Rhode Island decision also comes as COVID-related closures have deepened and highlighted inequities in the education system, and as learning losses are stacking for many students, which Frankenberg said could be used to bolster future right-to-education cases. 

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