Are U.S. Students Being Adequately Prepared to be Good Citizens?



According to data compiled by the Pew Research Foundation, public trust in government is hovering at around 18%, and voter participation has dropped to its lowest since 1996. Is the lack of civics education to blame?

A new federal lawsuit is alleging that public schools in Rhode Island are failing to adequately prepare students to perform their civic duties. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 14 students and believed to be a first of its kind in the U.S., claims the state’s governor, Department of Education, and leaders of the General Assembly have failed to give students adequate knowledge about the workings of government necessary to perform civic duties like voting, exercising free speech, petitioning the government and exercising all their constitutional rights.

In the wake of the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Rhode Island, like many states, chose to dedicate much of its educational resources to improving math and English performance. One of the lawyers who filed the lawsuit, Columbia University Professor Michael Rebell, says Rhode Island was picked for the lawsuit because the state doesn’t include civics among its educational requirements, doesn’t mandate that teachers be trained in civics, and fails to test students on their comprehension of civics and American history.

One of the plaintiffs, Aleita Cook, says she struggled with English and math while a student in the state but never got the extra help she needed. “This case is bigger than me,” she said. “I’m doing this for my little brothers and sisters.” Classical High School senior Musah Mohammed Sesay said that during his 12 years of education in Providence Public Schools, he has yet to take a civics class and was never taught about the workings of the government.

“Our school system is inherently failing so many students by not giving them the information they need to contribute productively to making changes in this country,” Sesay was quoted as saying in a recent Providence Journal report. “As a senior, it would have been the icing on the cake to have learned about where education funding comes from. When you don’t teach civics, students simply feel left behind or apathetic.”

So what exactly is the state of civics education in America?

While the 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education found that 42 states and Washington, D.C., require at least one course related to civics education and every state includes discussion of current events in its curriculum, the overall trend in eighth-grade civics has been gradual with a slight improvement in scores in recent years but gaps in civics scores remain wide.

According to a 2018 survey by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, just one in three Americans would pass the U.S. citizenship test, although the vast majority of citizen-seeking immigrants pass the test easily. More than 70% of the 1,000 surveyed (nearly all American-born) either wrongly identified or weren’t sure about which states were part of the 13 original colonies; less than half could positively say which countries America fought against during World War II; and while most knew the correct answer, a disturbing 2% of the respondents identified climate change as the cause of the Cold War.

A 2018 civics survey conducted annually by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) found that:

  • More than one-fourth of the 1,000 adults surveyed mistakenly think the U.S. Constitution allows the president to ignore a Supreme Court ruling if he believes the ruling is wrong.
  • Thirty-two percent could correctly name all three branches of government, an increase from 26% in 2017, but 33% of those surveyed couldn’t name any.
  • Nearly one in five said they would consider doing away with the Supreme Court if it were to issue a lot of unpopular decisions and that 25% think it would be permissible for Congress to remove jurisdiction from the court in circumstances in which it opposes the court’s ruling.

APPC Director Kathleen Hall Jamieson said of the survey results, “High-quality civics education is not a luxury, and one is unlikely to appreciate or defend constitutional prerogatives or rights one does not understand.”

Though most would agree that a civics education should be basic in America, a disparity in funding is typically a bone of contention. According to Rebell, lawsuits alleging unequal education funding have been brought in 47 states in the last 50 years, and approximately 60% of the time, courts have ruled that students have a Constitutional right to a proper education, but Rhode Island courts did not follow suit.

In 1973, students from a poor school district in San Antonio, Texas, argued they were denied the right to an adequate education, citing the fact that a neighboring district received twice the state money. Although the U.S. Supreme Court subsequently ruled against them, Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote in a dissenting opinion stating that every citizen has a constitutional right to vote and exercise free speech, but arguing that nobody can exercise those rights without access to a basic education.

Whatever the outcome of the Rhode Island case might be, the decision will likely be appealed, and could ultimately reach the U.S. Supreme Court. According to New York Attorney and CEO David Reischer, previous Supreme Court cases have looked at whether students have a fundamental right to education under the 14th Amendment. “These previous cases have generally been decided via analysis of ‘equal protection’ of the 14th Amendment, and the Supreme Court has found that the Constitution does not guarantee a person to same quality of education offered in other states,” he said.

“Nevertheless, previous Supreme Court precedent has suggested that depriving a person of their right to speak or vote may be a violation of the Constitution. This Rhode Island case will need to make the argument and persuade the court that deprivation of a person of general education on civic matters is sufficient to lead to a person’s speech or voting being abridged by deprivation of education on these civic matters, and as such violates the Constitution.”


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