Michael Rebell was growing frustrated. It was October, over 10 months after the trial had ended, and Judge William Smith still had not released a decision on the case. In the 50 years that Rebell had worked in education reform, he had never known a judge to take this long. His career had taught him that change often required patience, but that did not stop him from hoping that Smith’s decision would arrive sooner. The case he had presented, after all, was urgent: He believed democracy was on the line.
The case was Cook v. Raimondo, and Rebell was the lead attorney for the plaintiffs: a group of Rhode Island public school students suing Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo and other state officials over their right to a civics education. The plaintiffs, whose grade level ranged from preschool to 12th grade, attended or will attend public schools where opportunities to get involved in activities like speech and debate were limited. Students did not take field trips to the state legislature or city council, and teachers lacked the training to prepare students to become citizens capable of serving on juries or making informed voting decisions.
“This case is very clear,” Rebell reflects. “Kids have a right to a certain quantum of education in order to exercise their constitutional rights.”
But when Smith finally released his ruling on October 13, almost two years after Rebell first filed the case, Rebell had lost. Cook v. Raimondo was dismissed.
Rebell remembers his reaction to the decision. “I do read things carefully, but with something like this, you flip to the last page and see, did you win or lose? So, I saw that we did not prevail, and I was not ecstatic about that, but then I went back to the first page and I started reading it. And the more I read, I said, ‘This—this is fantastic.’”
Although Smith had found that it was not within his jurisdiction to establish rights not recognized by the Constitution or the Supreme Court, he was surprisingly enthusiastic about the case. In a 55-page opinion, Smith affirmed the need for civics education “in these fraught times” and commended the plaintiffs, writing, “What these young people seem to recognize is that American democracy is in peril.”
“I would have preferred to have won. But if we were going to lose, this is as good as it could have been,” Rebell says. “This is the best decision [for an] appeal.”
Rebell maintains that a victory for Cook v. Raimondo, which would establish a right to a civics education, would help mitigate some threats to democracy like political polarization and the spread of misinformation. Despite Smith’s dismissal of the case, Rebell is hopeful that such a victory is still within his reach.
Rebell is currently in the process of appealing Cook v. Raimondo to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, and he is feeling optimistic. While he is hesitant to speculate about whether the case will reach the Supreme Court, he thinks his chances are good. Either way, Rebell is looking at possibly years of work ahead of him.
“The wheels of justice clank slowly in the best of circumstances,” he says. “It [will] take a while for this case to be fully resolved.”
But Rebell is no stranger to playing the long game. His career has often forced him to be patient, even at times when patience seems absurd. But, just as often, Rebell has refused to coddle institutions that would delay justice. His work is an unusual combination of protracted battles in the courtroom and grassroots engagement in communities. Rebell is a study in impatient patience: He demands change now, and if you will not give it to him, he is prepared to meet you in court for as many months—or years—as it takes.
His colleagues will tell you that Rebell’s disciplined persistence has been a thorn in the side of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg.
Long before he was getting under the skin of New York politicians, Rebell was an undergraduate at Harvard University, from 1961 to 1965. He likes to describe himself as “a child of the ’60s,” though 21-year-old Rebell was anything but a ’60s radical. As head of the Harvard debate team, he spent school breaks driving around the country in a Volkswagen to face off against other schools. Back then, social change was little more than a debate topic to Rebell, who won a tournament in 1964 on the motion that “race relations could be improved through legislation,” at a time when fewer than 12 Black students were admitted to Harvard each year.
But in the late ’60s, social change was no longer theoretical to Rebell. As a law student at Yale University, he taught for a program that prepared high school graduates from underprivileged backgrounds to enter elite colleges, inspiring him to pursue education reform. After graduation, he worked at a law firm, where he helped the New York City Board of Education decentralize its school system.
This was not enough for Rebell. Feeling that he was on “the wrong side of the issue,” he left the law firm to go work for a non-profit representing individual new community school boards in the city, rather than the New York City Board of Education.
This was an exciting project for Rebell—not just because it meant he got to spend more time in the courtroom, but because he got to help shift power back to New York communities. When the nonprofit folded, Rebell knew that he did not want to go back to working for a big firm. In 1971, he decided to open his own practice, Michael A. Rebell Associates, where many of his first clients were school boards he had previously represented. At his firm, he charged low fees or worked pro bono and got involved in as many areas of education law as he could. “Special education, testing, school desegregation, you name it,” he says.
In the early ’90s, as the co-counsel for plaintiffs in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. State of New York, Rebell was at the helm of one of the biggest education rights lawsuits in recent memory. The case began when New York Community School District 6 faced sustained funding cuts made by the New York City Board of Education. As the attorney for the school district, Rebell watched the schools become overcrowded, while cuts to school aides and paraprofessionals that provided before-school care left parents without a support network.
New York State Sen. Robert Jackson, then-president of the school board, remembers a conversation with Rebell about the steep cuts to funding. “I said, ‘Michael, something has to be done,’” Jackson recalls. “‘Even if we have to file a lawsuit by ourselves.’”
That is exactly what they did. In 1993, Rebell and Jackson created the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a nonprofit coalition of education advocacy groups and school boards from across the city. Under CFE, they filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing that New York students’ rights to a “sound basic education” had been violated by the cuts to school funding.
Nine years after filing the case, which cycled in and out of New York’s highest courts, one intermediate judge, ruling against CFE, concluded that a “sound basic education” only obligated New York to educate students up to an eighth-grade level. Rebell and his team were outraged.
Hoping to drum up public support for the lawsuit, Rebell’s CFE team, led by Jackson, organized a 150-mile march from Manhattan to Albany in 2003. It worked well, according to Jackson: “When we started to walk straight up Broadway, there were kids out there from different districts that walk[ed] with us. And then when we reached District 6 from 135th Street, all of the schools were up there on Broadway cheering us on.”
Later that year, the ruling was overturned.
Rebell describes the effort to open communication across community groups like school boards, teachers’ unions, parents’ associations, and the NAACP as “a big political campaign.” He laughs as he says, “I used to say I was in Elmira, New York, more times than Hillary Clinton had been on all of her walking tours.”
After CFE enjoyed its final victory in 2006—when a directive issued by the courts ordered New York to allot $5.6 billion in operating aid and $9.2 billion in capital funding to its public schools—Rebell and his team celebrated, but their sense of triumph was short-lived.
“We’d win these big victories, and we’d go out and celebrate,” Rebell says. “And then you come back five years later, and you see what differences it made in anybody’s life. Has this really reformed the schools? More often than I’d like to admit, the answer was no.”
In the years following the CFE case, Rebell says, “We were worse off than when we had started.” The billions of dollars in funding promised by CFE’s legal triumph were not allocated to the schools, owing in large part to the recession that followed the 2008 fiscal crisis.
To this day, New York has not fulfilled its court-ordered school funding mandate. Rebell has kept fighting for the court-mandated funds to be delivered. Currently, he leads litigation in New Yorkers for Students’ Education Rights (NYSER) v. State of New York, a lawsuit filed in 2014 to ensure schools receive CFE funds.
But 14 years ago, that work appeared to be over. Rebell says, “When we finished the CFE case in 2006—and that was consuming me full-time for many years—I had to decide, well, what am I going to do now?”
No sooner than he had begun asking himself this question than he received an offer too good to refuse: Teachers College asked Rebell to “set up an institute on educational equity.” This opportunity appealed to Rebell, who, having retained the excitement for teaching that he had built while teaching as a law student at Yale, had taught a few classes when his work on CFE permitted him to do so.
He accepted the offer from Teachers College, setting about creating what would eventually become the Center for Educational Equity. Rebell has taught at Columbia ever since.
In its early days, CEE conducted fieldwork in school districts across the country to discuss with stakeholders how to improve education in their communities. The center formalized the strategy Rebell employed in his litigation for New York City public schools.
CEE is currently turning research findings into policy reports and recommendations for New York legislators and school boards, as well as building evidence for Rebell’s continued fight for CFE funds in the NYSER case. Recently, the center released a study analyzing equity and access to civic education in New York City high schools, reflecting Rebell’s work in Cook v. Raimondo.
The recent election has made Rebell more optimistic about the fight for the right to civic education in Cook v. Raimondo, but it has also underscored the urgency of winning the case. Rebell says that high youth voter turnout has made him “more and more concerned that our young people who are more and more starting to vote now are properly educated, so they know what they’re voting for.”
Rebell is still working on his appeal for Cook v. Raimondo. But he’s invested in the case—and so are his plaintiffs, some of whom, as juniors and seniors in high school, might graduate before they see the impact of a victory on the case. Rebell is moved by their dedication. “I mean, just that attitude is saying something about understanding civic involvement and doing things to make something in your community better for other people, even if you’re not going to personally benefit from it,” he says.
His voice is insistent as he says, “Civic values are so important these days, you know—things like the rule of law, and tolerance for people with differing views, and all our other democratic values. So, to the extent that schools take these things seriously and provide them for kids—that’s what I would see as an ideal outcome.”
After what has already been a long day, Rebell still has a deposition for his NYSER case. And when that is over, there are still briefs to write and litigations to draft. Rebell wears a soft, tired smile as he signs off like he knows it will be a while before he can rest, but he is ready to get to work.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Cook v. Raimondo case is being appealed to the Supreme Court. The case is actually being appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the First Circuit but might eventually be appealed to the Supreme Court. Spectator and The Eye regret this error.
Enjoy leafing through the eighth issue!