Federal judge rules students have no constitutional right to civics education — but warns that ‘American democracy is in peril’

In an extraordinary decision that referenced President Trump’s tweets to postpone the November presidential elections, U.S. District Court Judge William Smith said the public school students who filed the lawsuit were not on a “wild-eyed effort to expand the reach of substantive due process.” Rather, he said, they were issuing “a cry for help from a generation of young people who are destined to inherit a country which we — the generation currently in charge — are not stewarding well.”

“What these young people seem to recognize is that American democracy is in peril,” he wrote (see opinion in full below). “Its survival, and their ability to reap the benefit of living in a country with robust freedoms and rights, a strong economy, and a moral center protected by the rule of law is something that citizens must cherish, protect, and constantly work for. We would do well to pay attention to their plea.”

The class-action lawsuit filed two years ago by 14 named students and their parents said that Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) and state education and legislative leaders had failed to provide them with an “education that is adequate to prepare them to function productively as civic participants capable of voting, serving on a jury, understanding economic, social, and political systems sufficiently to make informed choices, and to participate effectively in civic activities.”

That failure, the lawsuit said, violated their constitutional rights under different parts of the Constitution that they said guaranteed them the right to an education that prepares them to be active citizens. The lawsuit said the defendants had “downgraded the teaching of social studies and civics, focusing in recent decades on basic reading and math instruction” and “neglected professional development of teachers in civics education.”

But Smith said in his ruling last week that in regard to the contention by students that their constitutional rights included a right to civics education, “The answer to that question is, regrettably, no.” He said, however, that the students “should be commended for bringing this case,” believed to be the first of its kind in a U.S. court.

“It highlights a deep flaw in our national education priorities and policies,” Smith wrote. “The court cannot provide the remedy plaintiffs seek, but in denying that relief, the court adds its voice to plaintiffs’ in calling attention to their plea. Hopefully, others who have the power to address this need will respond appropriately.”

Derek Black, a professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Law and an expert on constitutional law and education law, criticized the ruling, saying: “State courts across the country routinely answer these types of questions. The notion that a federal court cannot act, when states have otherwise failed to do so, is inconsistent with the history of public education.”

There has long been concern about the lack of comprehensive civics education in America’s schools, especially during the past few decades when education reform policy was focused on raising standardized test scores in math and