The Illinois Constitution seems pretty clear about the role of the state in funding local schools.
In the current version adopted in 1970, the education clause (Article X, Section 1) of the Illinois Constitution states:
A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.
The State shall provide an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services. Education in public schools through the secondary level shall be free. There may be such other free education as the General Assembly provides by law.
The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education (Article X, Section 1).
But oddly, the courts, including the Illinois Supreme Court, have ruled that Article X, Section 1 means just the opposite of what you may think it actually says.
In Blase v Illinois, a 1973 case heard by the Illinois Supreme Court, the plaintiffs claimed that the state of Illinois had primary responsibility for financing the public education system based on the education clause of the Illinois Constitution.
The challenge further claimed that the state was required to provide for not less than 50 percent of the funds needed to operate the public elementary and secondary institutions.
After reviewing the history of the constitutional convention, the court held that the disputed provision was intended to express a goal or objective, not to state a specific command.
In 1995, The Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar challenged the legality of the Illinois financing system based on the inequity between district finances in Illinois. The plaintiffs argued that Illinois had failed to provide an “efficient system.”
They also argued that districts with little wealth could not provide a “high quality” education, especially for at-risk students.
The court said no again by ruling that “questions relating to the quality of education are solely for the legislative branch to answer.”
In a 1999 case, 11 families from East St. Louis argued that the school district had failed to provide a “minimally adequate education.” In Lewis E. et al, Appellees v. Joseph A. Spagnolo, the plaintiffs argued that the buildings in the district were in “wretched disrepair,” and that the district had not provided the basic educational components such as teachers and textbooks.
This case was dismissed, with the court restating that the quality of education is not a “judicially manageable standard” and that it belonged to the legislature.
In 2008, Chicago Urban League and Quad County Urban League v. the State of Illinois and the Illinois State Board of Education had three basic premises. Based on the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 2003, the claim first alleged that the funding formula was discriminatory in that it had a “demonstrable adverse” impact on African-American students, Latino students and other minority students.
The second premise was that the formula violated the equal protection clause by failing to provide an “efficient system of high quality public educational institution and services.”
The suit argued again over the meaning of the “primary responsibility for financing the system” clause, stating:
“Since 2003 … Illinois has ranked 49 out of 50 in state contributions to school funding. The state’s share of the revenue raised for public schools in Illinois has decreased steadily, spiraling downward from a one time high of 48 percent, over thirty years ago in 1976.”
The third argument maintained that the education clause would be considered a “non-delegable duty” and therefore all taxation for education would be considered state funding, rather than local funding.
The Illinois court dismissed all the claims.
Over the past decades there have been other court cases challenging the racist and inequitable nature of state funding in Illinois.
None have been successful.
Although there have been recent legislative changes to the funding formula, state funding for poor districts keeps Illinois’ ranking at the bottom of all 50 states.
In 2017 the Illinois legislature adopted what they called “the evidence based funding model.”
The idea was to determine each school district’s “adequacy target” — the amount of money it needs to provide the educational services required by the state.
That target is based on factors unique to each district, such as the district’s size, and the number of low-income students, English language learners and students with special education needs.
The 2017 law also calls for the state to increase school funding by at least $350 million each year, with districts furthest below their adequacy target getting first priority for new money. The stated goal is to bring all districts up to at least 90% of adequacy by 2027.
But $350 million is a relative pittance.
Data released at ISBE’s June meeting, however, shows the increased annual investment in the formula would need to be closer to $660 million to bring all districts to 90% adequacy by the targeted date.
According to ISBE, it would have cost the state an additional $7.4 billion in fiscal year 2018 to bring all districts up to 100%.
For the current fiscal year, that figure stands at $7.1 billion.
One thing is clear. The courts will not provide the remedy.
Individual districts like Chicago and those suburban and downstate districts that serve poor and students of color cannot fund quality schools without greater state aid.
The courts say it is the legislature’s job and we are waiting (and we should not be waiting silently) for them to do it.