Since then, almost all legal battles over school funding or inadequacy have been waged in state courts. Today, educational equity is the most active area of litigation regarding state constitutions in these courts, according to Rebell. Such suits have been brought in pretty much every state, more than half of which—60 percent—have resulted in a finding that there is a right to a high-quality education under the respective state constitution, according to Rebell. Rebell has been involved in more than a dozen of these cases, including a precedent-setting suit in New York that in the early 2000s successfully argued that in underfunding New York City’s schools, the state’s school-spending system had been denying New York City children their right to a “sound, basic education,” which the New York Court of Appeals said was guaranteed by the state’s constitution.
Still, Rebell was as troubled then as he is now about the paucity of civics instruction in schools, which he says has contributed to the present-day resurgence of tribalism, historically low public trust in government, and post-truth politics. He interprets these longer-term, real-world consequences as evidence that the Constitution does indeed guarantee a right to education—hence, Cook v. Raimondo. As for why Rebell and his team chose Rhode Island as their battleground? One reason is that Rhode Island’s Supreme Court has held on two past educational-rights suits that issues around school adequacy and equity are not the province of the state judiciary. The judges have instead determined that the onus is on the state legislature to address the problems, but according to the plaintiffs in Cook, lawmakers have failed to do so.
More than that, though, the lawyers for the plaintiffs identified in Rhode Island’s education system a perfect case study for the modern-day challenges dogging public schools across the country—significant socioeconomic inequality and wide achievement gaps, for example, and a steadily growing population of immigrants, many of them Latino. (The number of Latinos in the state has tripled since 1990; they’re expected to make up 14 percent of the population by 2032.) Rhode Island has some of the worst segregation in the country: One in five schools is at least 90 percent white, while more than one in 10 is at least 90 percent students of color. The way Rebell describes it, the state has failed to support the needs of students who are learning English as a second language, a failure that he argues prevents them from exercising their constitutional rights.
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“It occurred to me that you really need the basics of being able to speak English,” Rebell told me earlier this year, “and that [in a place like Rhode Island], you have a long ways to go if you want to say you’re preparing all kids for capable citizenship.”
Another thing that made Rhode Island appealing was not that it stood out for any reason, but that it didn’t: Deficiencies in civics education are common across the country. Like many states, Rhode Island’s social-studies policy is vague; there is neither a required civics course nor a required American-history curriculum. Meanwhile, the position of social-studies specialist in the state’s education department has remained vacant for the past six years, and the vast majority of Rhode Island’s teachers lack training in civics, according to the complaint. And, as is the case in many states, in Rhode Island access to civic skills and knowledge tends to correlate with income, according to Rebell. Take, for example, the fact that the plaintiffs attend schools that have only a small supply of antiquated computers, a dearth that deprives students of the “critical educational opportunities necessary to develop the skills for internet and media literacy,” the complaint contends.