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Major New Case Filed in Illinois

Undeterred by the fact that the Illinois Supreme Court has twice before rejected adequacy claims based on justiciability grounds, the Chicago Urban League and the Quad County Urban League last week filed a new challenge to the Illinois education finance system in the state Circuit Court. In addition to a major adequacy claim based on an Illinois constitutional provision that requires the state to provide “an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services,” the complaint sets forth a major racial discrimination claim, alleges a number of violations of the state equal protection clause and argues that the Uniformity of Taxation provision of the Illinois constitution has been breached.

The racial discrimination claim alleges that the state’s school funding scheme has a demonstrable, disparate and adverse impact on minority students, particularly those who are African American and Latino. Plaintiffs in Kansas, New York, and Pennsylvania had in past years pressed similar claims of disparate racial impact under Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. These federal claims were dismissed, however, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275 ( 2002) that a private right of action does not exist under federal statutes like Title VI. The disparate impact claim in Illinois is being brought, however, under the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 2003, which is not subject to the limitations that the U.S. Supreme Court has applied to the analogous federal statute.

Adequacy claims advanced in the recent past in two separate cases, Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar, 672 N.E.2d 1178 (1996), and Lewis E. v. Spagnolo, 710 N.E.2d 798 ( 1999) had been dismissed by the Illinois Supreme Court because it determined that education funding issues are “political questions” that are not properly subject to review by the courts. Plaintiffs in the present case seek to distinguish these precedents by arguing that the adoption of a new set of statewide learning and achievement goals, as well as the federal No Child Left Behind Act, have established a vastly different context for assessing the courts’ability to deal with these issues than existed at the time the earlier cases were considered. The court will now have managable standards for determining whether the state’s funding scheme enables school districts to provide for a public school system of “high quality.”

One of the striking facts that the plaintiffs stress several times in their complaint is that Illinois now ranks 49th out of the 50 states in terms of the state contribution to school funding. The state’s share of total educational expenditures has decreased from 48% in 1976 to 27.8 % in 2007. Nationally the average state contribution to total education spending is approximately 50%.