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Legal Updates: Illinois, North Carolina

New Suit Filed in Illinois

Two individual taxpayers last week initiated a new equity litigation, claiming that Illinois’ education finance system violates the state constitution’s equal protection clause. Carr v. Koch. The complaint alleges, among other things, that residents of property poor K-8 school districts pay a property tax rate that is 23% higher than that paid by similarly situated taxpayers in a property-rich K-8 districts, but that per-pupil spending in the property-poor districts is 28% lower than in the property-rich districts.

Similar facts were considered insufficient to constitute a constitutional claim by the U.S. Supreme Court in Rodriguez v. San Antonio Ind’t Sch. Dist, 411 U.S. 1 ( 1973), and by the Illinois Supreme Court in Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar, 672 N.E.2d 1178 ( 1996) because the funding disparities were held to be rationally related to the legitimate legislative interest in maintaining local control of education. The present plaintiffs seek to distinguish these precedents by arguing that local control has effectively been eliminated in Illinois in recent years and “the State now exercises effective control over the core education functions of Illinois public schools ….. by prescribing Statewide learning standards, by requiring uniform Statewide testing aligned to such standards, and by imposing penalties on local school districts for failure to meet such Statewide standards.”

The remedy that the plaintiffs seek is a declaratory judgment holding that the present education finance system is unconstitutional. What changes would result from a plaintiff victory here is unclear. Plaintiffs reportedly worked with a public interest advocacy group, Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI), in preparing the case, and by some accounts their aim is ensure that more resources flow to students in underfunded school districts. The fact that two taxpayers and no students or parents are plaintiffs in the case may, however, mean that any relief that may result from this case will inure solely to the benefit of taxpayers in property-poor districts and not to the students. Another case, brought by the Urban League of Chicago (2008 CH 30490) is currently pending and is being prepared for trial.That case is based on a racial discrimination claim under the Illinois Civil Rights Act, and if plaintiffs prevail, it would clearly result in funding increases for predominantly minority school districts.

North Carolina Superior Court Judge to Review Leandro Compliance

Enforcing compliance with the state supreme court’s 2004 Leandro decision, Superior Court Howard E. Manning is requiring the State of North Carolina, through its Executive Branch, State Board of Education, Department of Public Instruction and the Durham, Winston-Salem Forsyth and Guildford school districts, to appear before the court on May 4, 2010 and report on “exactly what immediate steps they are going to implement to ensure that there is quality classroom instruction, competent leadership and resources” in all of the elementary and middle schools in those districts.

The basis for this order was the judge’s finding, on the basis of a prior hearing, that “the proper application and use of K-2 Assessments….. in reading and mathematics should result in all children being able to perform in reading and mathematics at grade level or above so that they can enter the 3rd grade reading at a proficient level and doing grade level mathematics.” He further determined that an elementary or middle school where the children were reading at 50% or less of proficiency “is a school where the equal opportunity to obtain a sound basic education is simply not happening.”

Realizing that there are major academic problems in small rural districts, the court decided to examine the reading scores for 2008-2009 in three urban school districts. This analysis indicated substantially more than 50% of the students in a large number of elementary and middle schools in the three above named districts were not proficient in reading.