Cook County Record

Saturday, March 28, 2020

CPS: New IL schools funding law 'major step toward equality,' shelves class action vs state over ed funding

By Karen Kidd | Dec 1, 2017

Chicago el

CHICAGO — Chicago's public school officials have shelved their attempt to use a lawsuit to address Illinois' "broken" public education funding system, as an education funding reform law enacted by the state earlier this fall has helped satisfy their concerns.

"Education funding reform was decades in the making, and the new law is major step toward equality for the children of Chicago," Emily Bittner, chief officer strategic planning and communications at CPS, said in an email response to the Cook County Record. "We are committed to working to ensure that the new funding formula is fully funded in the years to come."

Bittner did not answer further Cook County Record questions about CPS litigation that preceded the new law. Those queries included what role the litigation might have played in getting that new law passed and whether CPS could still revive its litigation in the future. Representatives of the governor's office and the Illinois Attorney General also did not respond to requests for comment.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner

CPS' original complaint, filed in February, claimed the state of Illinois employed "separate and unequal systems of funding for public education in Illinois." CPS officials at the time said the move was a “last stand” for the cash-strapped school system. The complaint named five parents of CPS students as joining with the Chicago Board of Education as plaintiffs. Named defendants included Gov. Rauner, the Illinois State Board of Education and its chairman, the Rev. James T. Meeks, Comptroller Susana Mendoza and state schools Superintendent Tony Smith.

The original complaint was dismissed April 28 by Cook County Circuit Court Judge Franklin Valderrama. In that dismissal, Valderrama took a dim view of the Chicago Board of Education's demands, which initially included a shut down of all state funding to other Illinois school districts until CPS received what the district felt was appropriate. Giving CPS what it had requested "would inject widespread chaos into the entirety of the State’s public education system," Valderrama said in his April dismissal.

However, Judge Valderrama was not without sympathy for the state's broken system for education funding. "To say the State’s current scheme of funding public education is broken is to state the obvious," Judge Valderrama said in his April dismissal. "Plaintiffs’ complaint, however, as constituted is not the vehicle to redress this inequity."

With that, CPS took another run at their complaint later in the spring, this time reframing it as how the state's pension funding rules allegedly force the school system to divert money from education to fund worker pensions. That, the school board claimed, is a demand not made of any other Illinois school district.

At midsummer, the state asked the court to dismiss the latest version of the case, arguing the school board's claims are barred by the principles of separation of powers because only lawmakers can appropriate funds, and allowing judicial relief would be a violation of that authority.

With the case still pending, lawmakers in Springfield passed a sweeping education funding reform package, which was signed by Rauner on Aug. 31. 

"The passing of this historic legislation was no easy feat, but it's a reminder of the good things we can accomplish when we put politics aside and focus on what's important: our children and our future," the governor said in a press release issued the same day. "I am proud to sign this bill, which will bring more money to school districts based on the needs of the children, guaranteeing that all Illinois students have access to adequate education funding."

In the end, Chicago's school officials and the state defendants agreed to a motion for voluntary dismissal, which Judge Valderrama accepted, according to an order handed down Oct. 4. Judge Valderrama dismissed the case without prejudice and left the door open for CPS and other plaintiffs to refile their lawsuit within a year.

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State of IllinoisIllinois Governor Bruce RaunerManuel Perez Jr Elementary School