Lawsuit Claims Illi nois’ Education Funding System is Unconstitutional
March 25, 2010
Two Illinois residents filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the State Board of Education and Gov. Pat Quinn,claiming the way the state’s public school districts are funded through property taxes is unconstitutional and unfair to taxpayers.
Illinois has more than 800 public school districts that are funded mostly through property taxes. The state sets minimum per student funding levels with specified tax rates for each district. The level is $6,119 per student this school year.
The lawsuit argues some residents in poorer school districts whose property is worth less have to pay a higher tax rate to reach the funding level than those in wealthier school districts.
The lawsuit asks the court to declare the funding system unconstitutional and direct the governor and legislators to come up with a new approach. It does not offer alternatives.
"We feel that the persisting problem of inadequate and unfair school funding needs to be dealt with," said attorney Alexander Polikoff with Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, a Chicago-based nonprofit.
Polikoff’s group and attorneys with law firm Sidley Austin, including former U.S. Attorney Scott Lassar, filed the lawsuit in Sangamon County, saying the funding system violates the state constitution’s equal protection clause.
At least three other lawsuits have been filed against the state’s school funding system since the 1990s, all alleging unequal treatment of students and school districts. But BPI executive director E. Hoy McConnell said Wednesday this is the first time one in Illinois has approached it from a taxpayer perspective.
"It is more important than ever that the system allocate what it has to everybody fairly," he said.
Two lawsuits, filed in the 1990s, were rejected by courts. A third, filed by the Chicago Urban League, is moving toward trial based on racial discrimination claims.
The latest lawsuit cites plaintiff Paul Carr, a high school counselor who owns property in the Homewood-Flossmoor Consolidated High School District. Carr paid a 4.1 percent school property tax rate in 2006 and Homewood-Flossmoor allocated $7,292 per student in 2008, according to the suit.
That’s compared with a 1.66 percent tax rate in the same year for property owners in the New Trier Township High School District, one of the wealthiest in the state. The district spent $10,641 per student in 2008, according to the lawsuit.
"Students deserve equal access to education," Carr said during a news conference in Chicago.
The lawsuit defines "property-poor" school districts as those in the bottom one-third when it comes to property value. The state uses a complicated formula to figure out an assessed property value per pupil.
State Board of Education spokeswoman Mary Fergus declined to comment because she had not seen the lawsuit.
Quinn spokesmen also declined to comment.