School Funding Cases in Illinois

in Illinois Litigation

Historical Background

Despite the Illinois Constitution’s strongly worded education clause, the Illinois Supreme Court has twice rejected plaintiffs’ challenges to the state’s education finance system, based on the separation of powers principal. While rejecting “equity” claims and a quality-of-education claim in Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar, 672 N.E.2d 1178 (1996), the court held that “the process of [school funding] reform must be undertaken in a legislative forum rather than in the courts.” In Lewis E. v. Spagnolo, 710 N.E.2d 798 (1999), the court rejected plaintiffs’ attempt to distinguish its 1996 decision from their “adequacy” claims and characterized the case as “once again” asking the court to “enter the arena of Illinois public school policy.”

Recent Events

In November 2007, the legislature approved a $550 million increase in education spending. This followed Governor Rod Blagojevich’s August proposal to increase spending on elementary and secondary education by $597 million, or nine percent, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Chicago Urban League v. State of Illinois

On August 20, 2008, plaintiffs in Chicago Urban League v. State of Illinois filed a complaint that asks the court to declare the state’s current school funding scheme unconstitutional. Plaintiffs claim that the education finance system is in violation of the education provision of the state constitution which guarantees all students “a high quality education” and that it also discriminates against families based on race in violation of the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 2003.

On April 15, 2009, the Circuit Court of Cook County held that plaintiffs’ claim that the state education finance system has the effect of providing substantially lower dollar amounts per student in “majority-minority” school districts states a valid cause of action under the Illinois Civil Rights Act and that the case may therefore proceed to trial. Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2001 ruling in Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275, individuals can not file discriminatory impact claims under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in federal court, but a private right of action is available under the Illinois Civil Rights Act, the provisions of which are similar to Title VI. Discovery and pre-trial motions have proceeded for the past several years. In this process, the court has narrowed the scope of the triable issues to include only actions taken by state board of education which may have a discriminatory impact; the impact of the basic state funding system enacted by the legislature is apparently beyond the scope of the issues that the court will consider.

The Illinois Court dismissed the plaintiffs’ education adequacy claims because of the binding precedent of Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar, 672 N.E.2d 1178 (1996), in which the Illinois Supreme Court held that adequacy claims are not justiciable. After the trial is completed on the Civil Rights Act issues, the Plaintiffs may appeal the adequacy issues to the Supreme Court to ask it to re-consider that precedent.

During the summer of 2016, the Illinois State Board of Education and the plaintiffs entered into a series of intensive negotiations to settle the case. State Superintendent Tony Smith has stated that the state’s funding system is archaic and harmful to minority students and he and a number of board members reportedly would like to settle the suit. However, according to the plaintiffs, the board’s representatives have walked away from the talks, leading the plaintiffs to file a motion for summary judgment. Under prodding from a number of legislators who agree that the system is inequitable, the state has in recent years compiled a substantial amount of data that the plaintiffs believe will help them to prove their case.

The Republican governor,  Bruce Rauner, has impaneled an education funding reform working group and charged it with coming up with a solution to the funding inequities by January 1, 2017. The State itself is not a party to the litigation, since its request to be dismissed from the action had been granted by the court several years ago

Carr v. Koch

In March 2010, two individual taxpayers initiated a new equity litigation, claiming that Illinois’ education finance system violates the state constitution’s equal protection clause. Carr v. Koch. The complaint alleges, among other things, that residents of property poor K-8 school districts pay a property tax rate that is 23% higher than that paid by similarly situated taxpayers in a property-rich K-8 districts, but that per-pupil spending in the property-poor districts is 28% lower than in the property-rich districts.

The remedy that the plaintiffs seek is a declaratory judgment holding that the present education finance system is unconstitutional. What changes would result from a plaintiff victory here is unclear. Plaintiffs reportedly worked with a public interest advocacy group, Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI), in preparing the case, and by some accounts their aim is ensure that more resources flow to students in underfunded school districts. The fact that two taxpayers and no students or parents are plaintiffs in the case may, however, mean that any relief that may result from this case will inure solely to the benefit of taxpayers in property-poor districts and not to the students.

Both the trial court and the 4th District Appellate Court dismissed the suit, claiming the plaintiffs did not allege an injury traceable to the state. On January 25, 2012, the Supreme Court of Illinois granted plaintiffs permission to appeal in Carr v. Koch. This is the first time since the Spagnolo case in 1999 that a school funding case has reached the Supreme Court of Illinois.On November 29, 2012, the Illinois Supreme Court ultimately, however, ended up affirming the appellate court’s dismissal of the action.

Costing Out

The Illinois General Assembly established the Education Funding Advisory Board to study the state’s system of K-12 school funding, recommend changes to the state aid formula, and recommend a new foundation level. The Board issued its first report in December 2000, recommending minor changes for fiscal year 2001-02 and hired a nationally-known school finance consulting firm to perform a costing-out study on which to develop longer-term recommendations.

The costing-out report was released August 7, 2001 and can be found at the Illinois State Board of Education website. It uses the “successful schools” or “empirical” methodology and incorporates costs for educating at-risk students. The study does not include capital funding, transportation or special education.

The Board issued its second report in 2005, in which it used a 2002 cost study to determine that per pupil spending for the 2005-06 school year should have been $6,405. In 2004-05, per pupil spending was only $4,964.

Last updated: October 2016

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