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. Edgar672 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. Spagnolo710 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.”

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 proceeded for 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 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.

In February, 2017, this case was settled. Under the settlement, the state board will no longer distribute cuts in state aid on an across-the-board basis whenever lawmakers fail to fully fund public education. Instead, the state board must hold a hearing and determine which districts can least afford pro-rated funding, based on a district’s needs and resources. All 100% of general state aid was paid this school year, but it fell below 95 % in every year since 2012. This settlement does not deal with whether the amounts that the legislature considers full funding are, in fact, adequate to meet student needs.

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.

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.

Board of Education of the City of Chicago v. Rauner

The Chicago Board of Education and five individual parents charged Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, the Illinois State Board of Education and other state defendants with operating a racially discriminatory state education funding system in a complaint filed in February, 2017 in the Chancery Division of the state circuit court. The suit claims that last year the State spent 74 cents to educate Chicago’s children for every dollar the State spent to educate the predominantly white children outside Chicago, and that Chicago received just 15% of the state’s education funding, despite having nearly 20% of the students. Chicago’s student body is composed approximately 90% of students of color, compared to schools in the rest of the state that are 58% white.

Chicago’s complaint does not include any adequacy claims, despite the fact that Illinois’ constitution guarantees all students a “high quality” education,  presumably because the Illinois Supreme Court has twice rejected adequacy claims, ruling that the courts will not review legislative funding actions because of separation of powers principles. 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.

This case is not affected by the recent settlement in the Chicago Urban League case that raised many similar issues.

Last updated: October 2016