RI and students who sued the state agree to improve civics education

Some of the students and parents who sued Rhode Island over the right to an adequate education in civics pose for photos after their attorneys and the state announced an agreement. At right is state Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, at left is plaintiffs’ co-counsel Michael Rebell. Photo by Steve Klamkin WPRO News

By Steve Klamkin WPRO News

The state Department of Education said on Wednesday that it would take steps to bolster civics education in Rhode Island, in agreement with plaintiffs who lost a lawsuit brought by students and parents who said schools in the state had failed to prepare them to participate as citizens.

The lawsuit, brought in 2018 was tossed out by a federal judge who nevertheless agreed that students should have an adequate civic education, even providing a road map to do so.

“Our children deserve an education that will prepare them to lead full, rich lives both professionally and as citizens of our democracy,” said state education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green in a statement.

She announced the state would establish a Civic Readiness Task Force by September to come up with specific measures to strengthen civics education, and would issue its findings by March 31, 2023.

“They were very good partners in the negotiation and I’m very pleased,” said Michael Rebell, co-counsel for the plaintiffs, and Executive Director of the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University, crediting the Department of Education. He said aspects of the agreement were “cutting edge”.

“For instance, the emphasis on teaching students on how to deal with controversial issues in the classroom is itself a controversial issue. It shouldn’t be,” said Rebell. “But, as you know, legislatures in about 11 states have passed laws that inhibit free discussion of controversial issues in the classroom. Rhode Island’s not one of them, but even in the states where this hasn’t passed, there’s been a negative, chilling effect on teachers.”

“The essence of a democracy is being able to have respect for conversations with people with whom you disagree,” Rebell said.

Student plaintiffs in the lawsuit applauded the agreement.

Niamiah Jefferson, 20 of Cranston was a student at Ponaganset High School at the time the lawsuit was filed, and is now enrolled in college. She said she learned a great deal by attending the court sessions during the lawsuit was heard.

“This goes to show the importance of your voice and the importance of still speaking up regardless, because change can happen, no matter how long it takes,” said Jefferson.

Infante-Green also said that she would support efforts to establish a constitutional right to an education in Rhode Island, which Rebell said is an important element to improving civics education.