In a lawsuit brought by students and parents to federal court over the state of Rhode Island’s education—particularly the lack of civics education among its students—the state’s department of education has an interesting defense. They’re not claiming the students are wrong or that their curriculum is in fact adequate. Instead, they’re falling back on a very depressing defense—no one in America has a constitutional right to any education at all.

The lawsuit in question centers largely on civics education. The students motivating the case insist that the school has failed in its duty to teach them how to function as informed voters, jurors, and citizens in general. The defendants want the case dismissed, based on the above-mentioned disparity of rights. They also assert that federal court is the wrong arena, as states have complete jurisprudence regarding education.

The students hope to push this case to the Supreme Court to address what many call an educational crisis: testing among eighth-grade students show that fewer than one in five students could be called proficient in U.S. history, and one in four for civics or government. Less than two in a hundred test as “advanced” in civics education, history, or government knowledge. And this isn’t a new failure in education; most adult Americans cannot name the three branches of government or pass the U.S. citizenship exam.

Perhaps the case should have begun in state court, but they claim that the 2002 No Child Left Behind law and a 1973 Supreme Court case set adequate precedent for moving this matter into the national arena. The lawyers representing the students and parents, a team from Columbia Law School, are hoping the case moves far enough to reach a Supreme Court decision about rights to education. At the very least, they will raise public awareness about the lack of—and need for—civics education and inspire future action on the matter.

Regardless of where this case goes, the issue is important. Current events are strong evidence that we need a voter base more educated in their civic responsibilities. These students are at most one election cycle away from being those voters, and they know that they are being underserved.

Photo by Rob Crandall /

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