Lawsuit Seeking Adequate State Funding for Illinois Schools Ends at Supreme Court

by Maureen A. Lemon

On October 21, 2021, the Illinois Supreme Court dealt the final blow to a lawsuit filed by Illinois school districts seeking adequate State funding in Cahokia Unit School District No. 187 et al., v. Pritzker et al., 2021 IL 126212. The lawsuit was first filed in 2017 by 22 school districts against then-Governor Rauner and the State of Illinois. The plaintiffs sought a judgment declaring that the State has a constitutional obligation to provide the funding necessary to meet the Illinois Learning Standards established by the Illinois State Board of Education (“ISBE”). The Illinois Supreme Court did not oblige.

In 1997, ISBE first adopted learning standards that identify the knowledge and skills that Illinois students must possess at each grade level. The learning standards have been revised through the years, including the 2010 adoption of the Common Core State Standards for English, language arts, and math. School districts are “evaluated” by the State based on the percentage of students who meet or exceed the learning expectations on State assessments.

The Cahokia lawsuit alleged that students are held accountable for meeting the learning standards, but the State has failed to give adequate funding to the school districts to assist with this effort. In fact, the combined state and local revenue per student in the school districts is below the State average and far below the revenue per student in the State’s wealthiest school districts.

The Cahokia complaint included detailed tables comparing the disparity between school districts in funding to the disparity in achieving the learning standards. Based on the data, the plaintiffs alleged that there was a direct correlation between the level of funding received by a school district from the State and the achievement of that school district’s students on the learning standards.

The Cahokia plaintiffs hoped that their arguments would be bolstered by the 2017 adoption of the Evidence-Based Funding for Student Success Act (“EBF law”). That law set forth an evidence-based formula to calculate the additional funding necessary to allow underresourced school districts to achieve the learning standards. Each school district is given an adequacy target and the State was directed to allocate additional funding to the low-wealth districts to help them to achieve their adequacy target.

The EBF law established a goal of meeting the adequacy targets for all school districts by June 30, 2027. Yet, that goal cannot be met given the State’s pre-pandemic level of additional funding set at $350 million per year. According to the plaintiffs, ISBE calculated that an additional $7.2 billion in State aid annually would be necessary to provide students in all school districts the capacity to meet or achieve the learning standards.

For those reasons, the plaintiffs requested the specific additional funding calculated as owed to them under the EBF law in a two-count complaint. Count I alleged that the State had unlawfully failed to provide the required funding required by the Education Article of the Illinois Constitution. Count I also alleged that the Governor exceeded his authority by “operating a public education system that operates in this constitutional manner.”

Count II of the complaint alleged that the plaintiffs and their students had been deprived of the right to equal protection in violation of Article I, Section 2, of the Illinois Constitution. Plaintiffs argued that the disparities in expenditures between Illinois school districts (which ranged as high as $10,000-$15,000 per student) were “shocking,” had no legitimate basis in law, and could not be justified by the State’s goal of local control over education in light of the State-imposed learning standards.

In October 2018, the St. Clair County Circuit Court dismissed the case as barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. The court also held that the complaint failed to state a cause of action, relying on the 1996 Illinois Adequate State Funding Supreme Court decision of Citizens for Educational Rights v. Edgar, 174 Ill. 2d 1 (1996).

Applying the Edgar ruling, the trial court concluded that the quality of public education and the appropriation of funds to support the EBF law are exclusively within the authority and control of the Illinois General Assembly.

In its October 2021 ruling, the Illinois Supreme Court also sided against the school districts. The high court involved its prior decisions regarding school funding. In Edgar, the court had considered whether the then-current general state aid school funding formula violated the Education Article and the Equal Protection Clause of the Illinois Constitution. Section 1 of Article X of the Illinois Constitution states that “the State shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services,” and that “the State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.”

In construing the Constitution’s ‘efficiency requirement,’ the Edgar court concluded that the framers of the 1970 Constitution chose to address unequal educational funding and opportunity “with a purely hortatory statement of principle” rather than a meaningful mandate. The Edgar court also held that questions relating to the quality of education are solely for the legislate branch and not for the judicial branch to answer.

The Edgar court additionally rejected a similar equal protection claim, explaining that the structure of funding public schools in Illinois represents a legislative effort to strike a balance between the competing considerations of educational equality and local control. The Illinois Supreme Court reaffirmed its prior determination that a “high quality” education cannot be determined by judicially discoverable or manageable standards.

The Cahokia plaintiffs argued that times have changed which warrants a different outcome. Whereas there was no standard by which the court could determine whether the then current funding scheme met the “efficient system of high quality” public education constitutional standard when the court decided its prior cases, the enactment of learning standards and the EBF formula provided tangible means by which the judiciary could determine whether the Constitution had been violated.

Instead of treating these arguments on the merits, the Illinois Supreme Court dismissed the Cahokia case on procedural grounds. Indeed, the Court ruled that the Governor was not a proper defendant because he has no authority to spend State funds that aren’t appropriated by the General Assembly. Therefore, the case did not involve an actual controversy between the parties necessary for a declaratory judgment action.

In a special concurrence, Justice Neville highlighted the significant need for equitable school funding. While the EBF law is a step in the right direction, Justice Neville opined that “the failure to take additional remedial action risks sacrificing the futures of Illinois residents. Such failure will deprive at-risk students of the opportunity to obtain a high-quality education . . . .”

Justice Neville also expressed a concern that the failure to adequately fund public schools contributes to the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ phenomenon. Noting that Illinois funds its penal institutions better than it funds many of its school districts, Justice Neville strenuously urged the legislature to reprioritize its appropriations and take additional steps to remedy the dire situation facing Illinois students in underresourced school districts.

For those Illinois school districts hoping for more equitable funding, the Cahokia decision comes as a big disappointment. In its wake, school districts and their constituents must focus all efforts on convincing State legislators to honor the commitments made through the EBF law to adequately fund Illinois public schools.