Suit to Target School Funding
March 24, 2010
Two Illinois homeowners said they will sue the state Wednesday, claiming Illinois’ education funding system discriminates against taxpayers based on where they live.
This newest challenge to the controversial funding system alleges the state is shirking its responsibility to properly fund education by relying largely on local property taxes to pay for schools.
The lawsuit, to be filed in Sangamon County Circuit Court, contends that homeowners in poorer neighborhoods face higher property taxes than those who live in more affluent communities in order to meet the minimum cost of educating a student. This year, the state set the amount at $6,119 per pupil.
"It is unfair for taxpayers and students who live in property poor districts to have to try to fund education at the same levels as wealthier districts," said Scott Lassar, a partner at Sidley Austin and former federal prosecutor who is representing the plaintiffs.
Ron Newell of Cairo and Paul Carr of Chicago Heights, the plaintiffs, argue that the funding method violates the equal protection clause of the state constitution. They worked with the advocacy group Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI) to prepare their case against the state and the Illin ois State Board of Education.
A spokeswoman for the state education agency declined to comment because the state has not seen the lawsuit.
Newell said he hopes the legal action will break the gridlock that has stymied legislative reform for decades. As a high school social studies teacher and Cairo resident, Newell said his property tax rates climbed every year just to ensure students got the basic funding needed for their education.
"They could double our property taxes, they could triple them, and there’s no way that we could keep up with other districts," Newell said. "We simply were not providing the same kind of education that people were getting in other communities. I see dwindling results. That’s just not fair."
The advocacy group said two elementary districts in Lake County illustrate its point. In 2006, Lake Forest School District 67 had a local property tax base of $1.2 million per student, while nearby Zion Elementary School District 6 had a local tax base of $91,432 per student. Zion’s tax rate was 4.5 times higher than the Lake Forest school system, but it had less money to spend in the classroom.
The lawsuit comes as public schools across Illinois confront record deficits and budget cuts and consider laying off teachers, increasing class size and eliminating extracurricular programs. Declining home values and foreclosures also have jeopardized local tax revenues while state payments to schools are months in arrears. The state owes districts $853.5 million.
This is not the first legal challenge to the state education funding system.
In a 2008 lawsuit, the Chicago Urban League claimed the funding disparities violated the civil rights of minority students. The lawsuit is ongoing. Previously, the Illinois Supreme Court in 1997 upheld a lower court decision to throw out a school funding lawsuit, saying the matter was an issue of local control.
But Alex Polikoff, the staff attorney for BPI, said school governance has changed greatly since then.
"Local control is nowhere near as local as it used to be," Polikoff said, citing state-mandated learning goals and tests brought about by the federal No Child Left Behind law.
William Kling, a school law and policy professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, said that while lodging a legal complaint is an important step for those who want change, he believes that ultimately the state legislature will decide the issue.
"Eventually it really does come down to the judiciary (deferring) to the legislative branch," he said. "It ultimately is a situation where the General Assembly is going to have to view long term the way schools are funded in the state."