Michael A. Rebell is the Executive Director of the Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University, New York. He is an experienced litigator in the field of education law, and he is also professor of law and educational practice at Teachers College and an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School.
Professor Rebell was co-counsel for the plaintiffs in Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc. (CFE) v. State of New York, a school funding “adequacy” lawsuit that claimed that the State of New York was not adequately funding public schools in New York City. Rebell argued the case three times before the New York Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, and won a major victory that established a constitutional right to the opportunity for a sound basic education for all students in New York State and has resulted in substantial funding increases. He is the author of six books, the latest of which is Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts, and Civic Participation (U. of Chicago Press, 2018).
In 2018, Professor Rebell was named Chair of the New York State Regents Civic Readiness Task Force, composed of 33 members from across the state, that was established to determine how best to promote civic preparation in public schools throughout the state. Prof. Rebell is also the driving force behind Cook v. Raimondo, a Federal suit filed in Rhode Island that argues the U.S. Constitution entitles all students to an education that prepares them to participate effectively in a democracy. The suit alleges that the state of Rhode Island is failing to provide tens of thousands of students throughout the state the necessary basic education and civic participation skills.
Q: Professor Rebell, you are playing an essential role in restoring and improving civic education in New York and — through the Rhode Island lawsuit — across the nation. What motivates you to be so engaged in this cause?
Rebell: My initial interest in civic education issues arose from the N.Y. Court of Appeals’ decision in the CFE case. The Court defined the constitutional right to a “sound basic education” in terms of a “meaningful” education that “prepares students to function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury.” But when I looked around at what was going on in schools in our state a few years after that decision was issued, I realized that preparation for capable citizenship, the aspect of schooling that the Court held to be the schools’ most important function, was, in fact, the lowest priority in most schools.
I had a sabbatical from Columbia a couple of years ago, and I used that time to research this issue in depth. I came to understand the causes of the decline in civic education in recent decades, pedagogical approaches that could be effective if widely implemented, and the reasons why — given the current state of political polarization — wide-spread ignorance about constitutional values and challenges to the perpetuation of our democratic system, the civic mission of the schools is more important today than ever before.
Q: The Mission Statement of the New York Civic Readiness Task Force states, “Encourage students to believe in the power of their own voices and actions. Equip students with the skills and knowledge necessary to engage responsibly in our culturally diverse democracy. Empower students to make informed decisions to enhance our interconnected world.” What steps is the Task Force taking to turn the worthy goals of that Mission Statement into reality for all New York K-12 students?
Rebell: The Task Force membership consists of approximately 30 teachers, administrators, researchers, advocates, representing diverse communities from throughout the state. We have undertaken extensive research and deliberations on a range of topics that resulted in the recommendations we made in four areas described below.
In the course of our deliberations, we realized that developing effective state policies that would truly accomplish our mission, as stated above, would be a formidable undertaking that would require time and resources beyond the scope of the actual charge of the Task Force. We focused on the initial recommendations that we were able to develop this year, but realized that other critical issues — including media literacy, professional development, and assessment — needed extensive additional attention.
A theme running throughout all of these issues is the question of equity. Many schools with large numbers of students in poverty simply do not have the staff and the resources needed to support students in carrying out the capstone and Seal projects that we recommended. I and many other members of the Task Force believe that the state needs to adopt serious policies and devote substantial resources to ensuring equity in access to civic preparation.
Fortunately, many of the major educational and civic organizations in New York State have joined together to form the DemocracyReady NY Coalition. Members of the Coalition have agreed to follow through on developing positions and taking advocacy stances on the additional civic issue areas — and especially on the needed equity agenda. So through the work of the Coalition, I believe that the challenging mission articulated in the Task Force’s mission statement will be continued and hopefully fully accomplished in the months and years to come.
Q: In January of this year, the Task Force made recommendations to the New York Board of Regents. What recommendations did the Task Force make and what is the thinking behind those recommendations?
Rebell: We have submitted to the New York Regents a set of four recommendations. First is a very robust definition of “civic readiness” that — consistent with the Civic Mission of Schools: Guardian of Democracy Report — emphasizes the importance of civic knowledge, civic skills, civic mindsets, and civic experiences. Second, we recommended a very detailed set of procedures and guidelines for civic capstone projects for both high school and middle school students. Third was a procedure for awarding a Seal of Civic Readiness on graduation diplomas for students who have excelled in civic preparation activities, and our final recommendation was for a procedure to identify schools doing outstanding work in this area as “Civic Readiness Schools.”
The Regents Committee on College, Career, and Civic Readiness unanimously endorsed the first three of these recommendations and deferred further consideration of the Civic Readiness Schools to the fall. The recommendations are now being sent out for public comment, and we expect them to be adopted in final form by the full Board of Regents and enshrined as official state policy in the late spring.
Q: One of the Task Force recommendations was to establish a Civic Readiness Capstone Project for New York High School students. Please describe what the proposed Capstone Projects would involve and why the Task Force believes that would enhance student civic readiness?
Rebell: In their Civic Readiness Capstone projects, we expect that students will: identify a civic issue (problem) facing them, their school, or their community; analyze a civic issue (problem), evaluate alternative solutions, design and/or execute a solution for this problem; take informed action to address the civic issue; reflect on what they have learned about their school or community from the Capstone project; make a presentation about their Civic Readiness Capstone project
Our recommendations link each of these tasks to the specific civic knowledge, skills, mindsets, and experiences we set forth in our definition of Civic Readiness. Therefore, we believe that students who carry out these challenging projects will be developing each of the aspects of civic readiness that we consider to be important.
Q: The issue of when and how to meaningfully assess student attainment in civics is always a vexing one. We don’t want to add to the testing burden, but we also don’t want civics to be ‘left behind’ in prioritization of tested subjects. Has the Task Force dealt with the issue of assessment in civic education?
Rebell: I certainly agree that “what gets tested is what gets taught,” and that one of the reasons that civic preparation is a low priority in many schools is that civics is an area that has been neglected in most states’ testing regimes. Creating thoughtful, accurate assessment instruments that go well beyond the short answer quick tests that some states have now adopted is a critical task that, as indicated above, I expect our DemocracyReady NY Coalition to turn to in the near future.
Q: What challenges or obstacles has the Task Force faced in its work and in developing recommendations?
Rebell: The Regents and the State Education Department have been genuinely committed to this work and very supportive of our efforts. I have been very impressed with the fact that the Regents, several years ago, changed the stated outcome goals of education in the State of New York from “College and Career Ready” to College, Career, and Civically Ready” and that they created the Task Force to help them develop policies on Civic Readiness.
The biggest obstacle we have faced in carrying out this task, however, is lack of resources. The governor and the legislature have for years denied the Regents and the State Education Department (SED) sufficient resources for them to fully carry out their core responsibilities, and the Regents have been quite creative in obtaining assistance from committed groups and individuals like those on our Task Force to help them develop and implement policies. Although the Regents and SED officials understand and support our equity goals, they simply don’t have the resources to allow the Task Force to fully develop policies in this area, let alone to provide the necessary funding that schools in high-need areas need to implement these policies. That is why I am pleased that the groups and individuals in the DemocracyReady NY Coalition — who are in a position to advocate for effective, equitable policies and adequate resources with the governor and the legislature — have expressed their willingness to take on this challenge.
Q: What are the next steps for the Civic Readiness Task Force?
Rebell: We will work with the Regents and SED to help disseminate and implement the three policy recommendations we expect them to approve later this spring, but then I think the Task Force will go out of existence. As I stated above, the important work that remains to be done will then be picked up by the DemocracyReady NY Coalition.
Q: Turning to the Cook v. Raimondo lawsuit, what is the ‘theory behind your case,’ how does the Constitution entitle students to an education that allows them to effectively participate?
Rebell: In its 1973 decision in San Antonio Independent Sch. Dist. v. Rodriguez, a case that focused on equity in school funding, the U.S. Supreme Court held in a close 5–4 decision that education is not a “fundamental interest” under the U.S. Constitution, essentially because education is nowhere mentioned in the federal constitution.
Justice Thurgood Marshall, in a strong dissent, took issue with this position. He argued that even though education is nowhere mentioned directly in the federal constitution, education must be deemed a fundamental interest because of, “the close relationship between education and some of our most basic constitutional values.” Specifically, he stressed the importance of education for exercising First Amendment rights, “both as a source and as a receiver of information and ideas,” and the importance of education for exercising the constitutional right to vote and to participate in the political process.
Justice Lewis Powell, writing for the majority, stated that, “[w]e need not dispute any of these propositions,” but because the plaintiffs in that case had focused on the funding issues, but not on civic preparation, the majority decided it did not need to confront the civic preparation issues in that case.
I believe that the time is now ripe for the federal courts to decide the critical issue that Justice Marshall raised over 45 years ago and that the Court has left open for all these years. And that is why we have now filed a federal case to bring this issue to the fore.
Q: Why Rhode Island? We expect there are 49 other states that are failing to provide adequate civic education?
Rebell: Educators, parents, lawyers, and advocates in Rhode Island have been pressing for educational improvements for years and they were eager to have us file the case there. They have been frustrated by the failure of the state legislature and of the state courts to act to remedy blatant educational inadequacies. The shortcomings of the state’s education system provide many clear examples to the courts of why judicial action is needed to ensure that students are receiving a proper civic education. For example, Rhode Island students are not required to take even a single civics course; schools lack resources for extracurricular activities that prepare students for civic participation; and opportunities for English language learners throughout the state are especially limited.
Q: What is the status of the case?
Rebell: The Complaint was filed at the end of 2018. The Governor and the other state defendants then filed motions to dismiss the case, arguing — among other things — that the U.S. Supreme had already held in Rodriguez that there is no right to education under the federal constitution. We filed a lengthy reply brief substantiating the arguments raised by Justice Marshall, as well as a number of additional legal claims — for more details on the case and copies of the litigation papers, see www.CookvRaimondo.info.
Extensive oral argument on the state’s motion to dismiss took place before Hon. William E. Smith, Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island, on December 5, 2019. A decision is expected any time now. It is likely that whichever party does not prevail on this motion will then appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.