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Esther J. Cepeda

It hardly seems possible, but students have gotten so fed up that they've resorted to legal action to get the education they need to become productive citizens.

As The Associated Press reported last week, a group of public school students and their parents filed a class-action lawsuit against Rhode Island's governor and the state's education officials, claiming that the state fails to prepare young people to fully participate in civic life.

The students are asking the federal courts to confirm the constitutional rights of all public-school students to a civics education that adequately prepares them to vote, exercise free speech, petition the government, serve on a jury, write a letter to a newspaper's editor, participate in a mock trial or otherwise actively engage in their communities.

Musah Mohammed Sesay, a high school senior and co-plaintiff in the suit, told the AP that he hasn't been exposed to the basics of how local government works or how decision-makers are held accountable by the citizens they govern.

It's a sad scene. Rhode Island doesn't have a civics-education requirement, doesn't require teachers to be trained in civics and doesn't test students on their knowledge of civics and American history, according to Michael Rebell, a lead counsel in the case and a professor of law and educational practice at Columbia University's Teachers College, who was interviewed by the Providence Journal.

Rebell said that the skill set is so low on the state's educational radar that the position of social-science coordinator within the Rhode Island Department of Education has been vacant for six months.

The department counters that it requires three years of history and social studies to graduate from high school and that it has grade-level standards that specifically talk about civics. But having standards on the books is one thing. Ensuring that educators are knowledgeable enough to teach the subject and then having an assessment in place to gauge how well the students learned it is quite another.

The Rhode Island suit, which could go as far as the Supreme Court, is not the only instance of students demanding that their education meet the most basic standards of usefulness in the real world.

In November, students in Lowell, Massachusetts, notched a victory. After a nine-year advocacy campaign, they succeeded in pushing for a law requiring the state to strengthen civics-education requirements.

The law mandates that American history, social sciences and civics be taught in public schools. It also requires the schools to implement student-led civics projects for children in eighth grade and high school that encourage students to work with public officials and learn how their government works.

Meanwhile, a nonprofit organization called the Civics Education Initiative is pushing for states to require high school students to pass a test of 100 basic facts about U.S. history and civics before they can graduate. The questions are pulled from the same test that all immigrants are required to take to gain citizenship.

So far, the organization has gotten 28 states to pass such a requirement -- or something similar -- and Texas is considering the move as well.

These changes to education policy can't come soon enough. The Nation's Report Card civics scores in 2014 among eighth-graders showed no improvement from their dismal level in 2010. Less than one-quarter of students scored at the level of "proficient" or better, and only about half said they found their civics coursework interesting "often" or "always."

Earlier this year, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation surveyed 1,000 randomly selected American adults with a multiple-choice quiz about civics. The results were appalling:

* Only 13 percent knew when the U.S. Constitution was ratified, with most incorrectly thinking it occurred in 1776.

* 60 percent didn't know which countries the United States fought in World War II.

* 57 percent did not know how many justices serve on the Supreme Court.

These conditions -- the marginalization of a civics education and children having to sue to get one -- create a perfect storm. They provide the right mix of ignorance, apathy and gullibility that can lead to the dismantling of our public institutions, our government and our democracy.

How are young people supposed to know that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it if they never learn the adage to begin with?

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Esther J. Cepeda writes for the Washington Post.

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