Legal Advocacy


Securing the Right to Meaningful Educational Opportunity for All Students

States-Based Action Plan

In 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in S.S.F.A. v. Harvard et al. that programs promoting diversity in college admissions were unconstitutional. This disappointing ruling continues a trend in the federal courts in recent decades toward restricting students’ right to equal educational opportunities, especially for students from low-income families and marginalized communities. At the same time, however, the trend in state courts has gone the other way. State courts have been taking significant steps to advance educational rights for all students. Major education rights litigations have been mounted in 48 of the 50 states in recent decades,1 and most of the highest state courts held that all students have a right under their state constitutions to an education that adequately prepares them to be capable citizens and competitive workers. 

Drawing on our extensive experience leading the education adequacy movement, the Center for Educational Equity, in collaboration with the Youth Advocacy & Policy Lab (Y-Lab) at Harvard Law School, has established a new state-based legal-advocacy project to realize the full potential for establishing all students’ right to meaningful educational opportunity at the state level. The goals and activities of the Meaningful Educational Opportunity Project include: 

  1. Catalyzing state-based education rights campaigns that center the voices of students and parents. This begins with mounting public information campaigns to inform students and their families of students’ constitutional right to a meaningful educational opportunity and of the significance of the right to education in state constitutions. Currently, we are partnering with the Kentucky Student Voice Team (KSVT) in organizing a series of regional forums across the Commonwealth to focus attention on the significance of the Kentucky Supreme Court’s landmark 1989 decision in Rose v. Council for Better Education, and the fact that the constitutional right to an adequate education that the Kentucky Supreme Court established in Rose is currently not being implemented effectively in that state.
  2. Articulating a definition of the “right to meaningful educational opportunity.” We are undertaking a comprehensive review of the evidence, expert opinions, judicial holdings, and remedies of the major state court rulings that have occurred over the past 50 years to discern the common themes and findings that permeate these highly significant state court litigations. We will then disseminate and organizing forums for discussion and adoption of this definition by advocates and attorneys. Widespread agreement on the meaning of the state constitutional right to education, based on legal precedents, expert analyses, and examples of successful implementation, can invigorate the education rights movement and lead to more positive and productive legal decisions and legislative action. We expect that this definition of the state constitutional right to education will emphasize not only fair and adequate funding but also the civic purposes of public education. This will be an important fulcrum to focus public attention on the need to prepare students effectively for the challenges and responsibilities of civic participation in the 21st century
  3. Building coalitions of state-based attorneys and advocates to strategize on public engagement and litigation strategies to defend and expand judicial rulings on students’ constitutional rights to an adequate education and to issue effective remedies to ensure a meaningful right to meaningful educational opportunity for all students and to prepare all students adequately for capable citizenship. The Center will also submit amicus briefs in appropriate cases that are advancing these goals. 
  4. Initiating model litigations in several states that will seek court rulings and effective remedial orders that will implement a definitive right to meaningful educational opportunity for all students and prepare all students adequately for capable citizenship. At this point, we are preparing to file such litigations in Kentucky and Minnesota.
  5. Empowering stakeholders with an understanding of the potential of these class action lawsuits, combined with meaningful public engagement, to lead to effective policy change, increased investment, and strengthened educational rights.

1. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court held in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, that education is not a right under the U.S. Constitution. As a result, attorneys and advocates subsequently turned their attention to the state courts. For an overview of these litigations, see, Michael A. Rebell, Courts and Kids: Pursuing Educational Equity Through the State Courts (2009) and Michael A. Rebell, State Courts and Education Finance: Past, Present and Future, BYU Educ. & L. J.: Vol. 2022: Iss. 1, Article 7 (2022), available at

Recent Litigations

Cook v. McKee

On November 29, 2018, the Center for Educational Equity filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of 14 Rhode Island students in order to establish public education as a right under the U.S. Constitution. The case, Cook (A.C.) v. McKee (formerly Cook v. Raimondo) argued that the Constitution entitles all students to an education that prepares them to participate effectively in a democracy. It alleged that the state of Rhode Island was failing to provide tens of thousands of students throughout the state with the necessary basic education and civic-participation skills.

Rhode Island District Court Judge William Smith issued his decision on October 13, 2020. Reluctantly dismissing the case, Judge Smith wrote:

This case does not represent a wild-eyed effort to expand the reach of substantive due process, but rather 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. 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….

Plaintiffs should be commended for bringing this case. It highlights a deep flaw in our national education priorities and policies. 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.

On January 11, 2022, the First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's judgment. They concluded their decision by “echoing the district court's observations...that the students have called attention to critical issues of declining civic engagement and inadequate preparation for participation in civic life at a time when many are concerned about the future of American democracy. Nevertheless, the weight of precedent stands in the Students’ way here....” Only the Supreme Court can resolve the ambiguities in the precedents that bear on this case, and Plaintiffs, therefore, considered seeking review by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

After consulting with representatives of the ten amici curiae who had filed briefs in support of the appeal to the First Circuit, however, the Cook attorneys advised the plaintiffs that the time was not yet ripe for bringing this issue to the Supreme Court. The plaintiffs accepted this advice. Instead of seeking review by the U.S. Supreme Court, they entered into a settlement with the Rhode Island Commissioner of Education. The settlement committed the state to establish a new civics seal project and to establish a task force, including plaintiff representatives, that would consider further reforms and enhancements of civic education in the state. Thus, even in the absence of a favorable court order, the Cook case “reflected and propelled larger movements aimed at public action, including by the political branches …[and] deepen[ed] public knowledge and set changes in motion.2

New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights v. State of New York

In 2003, in a landmark decision in CFE v. State of New York, the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, held that every student in the state has a right under Article XI of the state constitution to a “meaningful opportunity” to obtain the skills they need to be prepared for “competitive employment” and to “function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury.” (Michael A. Rebell, the Center’s executive director, was co-counsel for plaintiffs in this case.) The court determined that, among other things, many students in New York City were being taught by unqualified teachers, class sizes were unreasonably large, schools had too few computers, libraries, and science labs, and the graduation rate was unacceptably low. Accordingly, the court ordered the state to determine the “actual cost of providing a sound basic education” and to establish a fair, need-based funding system that would ensure “every school … would have the resources necessary for providing the opportunity for [such an] education.”3

In 2007, in response to this order, the state adopted the Foundation Aid Formula, which promised to direct more resources to underfunded school districts and increase annual state operating aid funding by $5.4 billion, to be phased in over a four-year period. That amount constituted the state’s share of the cost of providing all students in the state the opportunity for a sound basic education according to a study undertaken the previous year by the New York State Education Department (NYSED). 

The state did not, however, fulfill the Foundation Aid commitment on a timely basis. The requisite amounts were appropriated for the first two years of the four-year phase-in, but, following the 2008 recession, the state first froze further increases, and then substantially cut funding for several years. 

Those cutbacks, and the resulting harm they perpetuated for students in underfunded districts led a coalition of parents, local advocacy groups, and statewide education organizations to initiate a new lawsuit in 2014, New Yorkers for Students’ Educational Rights (NYSER) v. State of New York, asking the courts to order the state to fulfill its constitutional commitment. (Michael A. Rebell was also co-counsel for plaintiffs in this litigation.) In 2021, the state government at last agreed to fund the Foundation Aid Formula fully by appropriating the approximately $4.5 billion (with inflationary and other adjustments) still outstanding at that time in equal increments over the next three years. The parties to the NYSER case, who were preparing for a trial, then settled the case on the condition that, if the State kept its pledge to pay out the remaining Foundation Aid amounts over three years, the case would be dismissed. In April 2023, after the legislature approved the final appropriation necessary to finally fully fund the Foundation Aid Formula, the case was dismissed.

2. Martha Minow, San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez at Fifty: Contingencies, Consequences and Calls to Action, 55 Loyola U. Chicago L. Rev. 363, 385 (2023). 

3. Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) v. State of New York, 100 N.Y.2d 893 (2002).

Amicus Briefs

The Center for Educational Equity regularly files amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs to support plaintiffs asserting students’ rights to an adequate education in cases filed in New York and throughout the country. Among the cases for which the Center has filed amicus briefs in recent years are:

Keith A. Bradford, et al., v. Maryland Board of Education (Maryland, Appellate Court, 2023)

Parents for Educational and Religious Liberty in Schools et al. v. Lester Young et al. (New York Appellate Division, 3d Dep’t, 2023)

Maisto et al. v. State of New York (New York, Appellate Division, 3d Dep’t, 2017.)

Campaign for Quality Education et al. v. State of California, Maya Robles-Wong et al v. State of California (California S. Ct, 2016)

Anthony Lobato et al. v. State of Colorado (Supreme Court, Colorado, 2012.)

Horne v. Flores (U.S. Supreme Court, 2009)

Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, et al. v. Governor Jodi M. Rell, et al. (CT Supreme Court, 2008.)

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