Amid the state of Illinois' sustained budget woes, school districts in Chicago and elsewhere in the state have lined up to ask courts to intervene on their behalf and order the state to pay what they assert is its proper share of education funding.
But history has indicated such lawsuits have limited chances of success.
In April, school districts from southern Illinois and the St. Louis east metro area filed suit, claiming they have not received adequate funds to effectively operate and produce the curriculum required by the state’s constitution. The suit, filed in St. Clair County Circuit Court, accuses Gov. Bruce Rauner, the Illinois State Board of Education and the State of Illinois of violating Article 10 of the state constitution, which states “an efficient system of high-quality education” must be provided by the state.
“This is one of those lawsuits that have been going on for decades," Dick Simpson, professor of political science at the University of Illinois-Chicago, told the Cook County Record. "There’s no doubt that the state funding formula for schools, particularly those with larger numbers of low-income students and less of a property tax base, are not receiving a fair share of the state funds."
The Illinois school finance formula has been widely regarded as unfair and inadequate as economically challenged public schools in need of the most assistance have seen less funding compared to schools located in more affluent areas.
“The problem lies in a very complicated thing called the school funding formula, and if the courts found the funding formula to be discriminatory, particularly towards minorities and the poor, they could order additional funding to be paid to the school district that fit those categories," Simpson said.
However, this is easier said than done. Historically, Illinois courts have been reluctant to rule in favor of overhauling how educational funds are distributed or determining the formula's constitutionality. In 1996, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled against a similar challenge in Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar, as the court was unwilling to concretely define “high-quality education.” Another lawsuit filed in February by Chicago Public Schools, which cited civil rights violations against minority children due to lack of funding and pension disputes, was dismissed by a Cook County judge in April. CPS has since amended that lawsuit to try again.
“There is legislation pending in the state legislature and going to go up to the governor’s desk to try and cure that problem," Simpson said. "But it’s perfectly reasonable to file the lawsuit. Thus, for over really the last decade, those lawsuits haven’t succeeded. So it’s uncertain whether this one will be different."
The future of the current finance system remains unclear as the case awaits its court date.
“The courts are unlikely to order a particular payment of a particular amount to the 17 school districts," Simpson said. "But they are likely to order that the state revise the formula. The current formula is illegal. That has not succeeded in nearly a dozen lawsuits that have been filed over the last decade. Whether it succeeds this time, I have no way of predicting."