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School districts sue Illinois for failing to adequately fund public education

St. Louis Post Dispatch

Thursday, April 6, 2017  |  Article  |  By Kristen Taketa

Budget--State (8) , Education reform (38) , Education--Elementary and Secondary (36)
School districts in the Metro East and across southern Illinois are accusing the state’s school funding formula of being unconstitutional.

Seventeen school districts filed a lawsuit Wednesday alleging that the Illinois school funding formula does not sufficiently support school districts. Article 10 of the state constitution says Illinois must “provide an efficient system of high-quality education.” These 17 school districts, which are in low-wealth districts and spend below the state per-pupil average, say the state does not give them enough money to deliver a “high-quality education.”

Their grievance is broader than the state's budget crisis, which has starved school districts of millions of dollars because leaders in Springfield cannot agree on a spending plan.

Cahokia and Grant school districts in St. Clair County and Bethalto and Wood River-Hartford in Madison County are four Metro East districts joining in the suit filed against Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Illinois State Board of Education. The announcement came the morning after voters in Madison and St. Clair struck down two 1-cent sales tax proposals that would have provided tens of millions for school facility projects and potentially could have reduced some districts’ property tax rates.

Tuesday’s loss was a blow to districts that already have suffered from staff reductions, enrollment losses and loss of money for services as basic as transportation. For some districts, the measure was one of their last chances to raise money and salvage their budgets.

Cahokia, for instance, already has a tax rate of $13.08 for each $100 of assessed value, which is three times higher than typical school tax rates. It would be difficult to convince voters to raise it further.

Over the past five or so years, the district received $14 million less from the state than it was supposed to get. It has made do by cutting 80 positions, closing three buildings and stripping after-school programs and sports like soccer, golf and tennis. No class in the school has fewer than 30 students — even the kindergarten classes.  Three-fourths of Cahokia students are low-income.

“To be honest with you, we have cut so far down to the bone that there really isn’t anything else left for us to cut,” said Arthur Ryan, superintendent of Cahokia schools and one of the spokesmen for the lawsuit.

In a statement, Illinois Secretary of Education Beth Purvis said Rauner has increased school funding by $700 million since taking office. Rauner also convened a bipartisan commission last year to create a more equitable school funding formula. In early February, the commission recommended setting a "clearly defined" adequate funding target for each district based on their student needs and allocating more resources to low-income students.

"The governor never stops working to increase funding for our students and hopes school districts across Illinois will work with him and members of the General Assembly on this endeavor," Purvis said in the statement.

A spokeswoman from the Illinois State Board of Education declined to comment, saying it does not comment on pending litigation.

Defining quality

In 1996, a group of about 60 school districts and 37 individual school districts filed a lawsuit against the state similar to the one filed Wednesday. That lawsuit also alleged that the state failed to give schools the resources to provide a high-quality education.

But that suit was defeated in the state Supreme Court because the court declined to define in concrete terms what “high-quality” means.

Now, plaintiffs in Wednesday’s lawsuit say the state has itself defined what makes a “high-quality education.” It did so, plaintiffs say, when the Illinois State Board of Education established the Illinois Learning Standards in 1997, which outlines performance mandates for all school districts to meet.

Those higher standards mean districts have had to spend more to meet them. For example, the state board has since mandated that students must take state standardized tests online. That means districts had to buy computers and tablets, as well as train staff on how to administer the tests. The state board has also added topics that schools must teach, and changes to curricula require new books and training for teachers.

But after tacking on new, costly requirements, plaintiffs say, the state did not adequately adjust its funding formula to consider these higher standards. Indeed, the plaintiffs say the state never calculated how much districts would need to fulfill all these requirements.

“It’s like, look, if you want us to hold these standards, you’ve got to help us out and help us fund so we can get it done correctly,” Ryan said.

Local and state funding

Illinois’ school funding formula has long been criticized as being inequitable. Even though the formula gives some extra money to school districts with more low-income and needy students, wealthier districts continue to spend far more per-pupil, thanks to abundance of local funding.

A 2013 report by John Augenblick, a longtime school funding expert and educational consultant, found that in Illinois, the impact of local school funding is more than twice that of state funding.

The report said Illinois only contributes 27 percent of districts’ total operating revenue, while local revenue provides 64 percent, despite the state constitution’s mandate that Illinois bear the “primary responsibility” for funding public education. Local revenue in Illinois is “strongly associated with district wealth, and inversely related to student need.”

The report also found that “while spending has kept pace with inflation over the last decade, it is unclear whether spending is sufficient to meet student needs and to promote the fulfillment of state student performance expectations.”

The state had just settled in February a lawsuit that targeted its funding formula as being discriminatory to minority and low-income students for this same reliance on local revenue to fund schools. The 2008 lawsuit, filed by the Chicago Urban League, had pointed out wide disparities in per-pupil funding between wealthy and poor school districts.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the settlement requires that the state stop prorating general state school funding, which is when the state defers funding or drops it altogether when state revenue falls short. The state has prorated about 11 percent of general school funding for the past few years.

Today, the state no longer prorates general school aid, but it has not met any categorical funding obligations to schools for more than a year. That means schools have not received any money for state-mandated services like bus transportation, special education services and truancy, said Robert Daiber, Madison County regional superintendent.

“Some of these districts are just shaking their head as to what they’re going to do next year if we do not get some of these categorical reimbursements,” he said.