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Rhode Island students take fight for civic education to courts

A lawsuit against Gov. Raimondo aims to reach SCOTUS, change education nationwide

A group of Rhode Island students won an award for using their civic understanding to fight for civics education.

The student activists, who are fighting for civic education in public schools, received the New England First Amendment Coalition’s 2020 Antonia Orfield Citizenship Award at NEFAC’s 10th annual awards luncheon in Boston Friday.

Brian Aun, Symone Burrell, Melly Sok, Nancy Xiong and lead plaintiff Aleita Cook, who all accepted the award in Boston, are among 14 student plaintiffs involved in the class-action lawsuit Cook v. Raimondo, which they hope will make it to the Supreme Court and result in constitutional change.

Filed in November 2018, the lawsuit claims that the state of Rhode Island has violated students’ constitutional rights by failing to provide the necessary civic education to prepare students to effectively engage in a democracy.

Cook said the plaintiffs are currently waiting to hear District Judge William E. Smith’s decision, which is expected next month.

“If we don’t win, that’s kind of what we’re hoping for,” Cook said. If the case does move its way up to the Supreme Court, it would have the potential to reverse a precedent that equal access to quality education is not a constitutionally guaranteed right. Cook says that it is her personal goal to have the case capture the attention of students nationwide and motivate them to advocate for educational changes in their local communities.

“Everyone deserves the right to civic education, and everyone deserves to know how to use (it) toward civic engagement in this country, especially during this time,” Burrell said in her acceptance speech.

Cook told The Herald she believes that civic education should not be restricted to exclusive classes such as Advanced Placement United States History. Instead, it should be provided to everyone and treated as having the same importance as English or math, she added.

“How can you be a citizen in America and not even know the basic human rights you have or your branches of government? It just doesn’t make any sense,” Cook said.

In a speech introducing the student activists, Edward Fitzpatrick, a reporter who covers Rhode Island for the Boston Globe, spoke on how the lawsuit raised the question of educational inequality.

“Rhode Island allows school districts to decide for themselves whether and how to teach civics, and the lawsuit says that leads to big discrepancies,” Fitzpatrick said. “Students in affluent towns often have access to rich curriculum and a range of extracurricular activities like debate team and field trips to the state legislature that are beyond the reach of poor schools.”

According to Justin Silverman, executive director of NEFAC, the Antonia Orfield Citizenship Award was created to honor regular citizens — who are neither journalists nor attorneys — for advocating for the First Amendment and for fighting for open, transparent government.

Silverman said that NEFAC was “incredibly inspired” by the student activists’ initiative to not only demand a better civics education but also to sue the state in order to force the implementation of a civics curriculum.

While the activists differ from past recipients who have fought for information through public record battles, Silverman said that all recipients share the same goal: “to access information so that they can be better-informed citizens and have an easier time holding government accountable and being part of the democratic process.”

Cook told The Herald that as a student interested in pursuing activism as a career, she felt excited by the award and that it gave her “more exposure and opportunity in the future to continue to do social justice work within the community.”

“This is a precedent of what youth are capable of,” said Aun at the awards ceremony. “Youth are not just the future leaders of this world because they are the present leaders of this world.”



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