November 16, 2016
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Does Illinois School Funding Discriminate Against Minority Students?

By Curtis Black, The Chicago Reporter

Chicago Urban League President Shari Runner doesn’t seem particularly intrigued by reports that the state board of education is considering a settlement in the league’s longstanding lawsuit charging that Illinois’ system of funding schools discriminates against minority students.

For one thing, she’s heard nothing from the Illinois State Board of Education in the two weeks since the Daily Southtown reported that some ISBE staff members were pushing for a settlement. For that matter, she’s heard nothing since ISBE walked away from a previous round of settlement talks this summer.

In any case, “we’re not working for a settlement, we’re working for a judgment,” Runner said. “We’re moving forward with our lawsuit and our motion for a summary judgment.”

It’s not hard to see why. The lawsuit has been delayed numerous times, including two rounds of settlement talks. It has dragged on for eight years.

The lawsuit was filed in 2008, and a year later a Cook County Circuit Court judge ruled that the Urban League and its co-plaintiffs had established a valid civil rights claim and deserved a hearing. They argue that the state’s over-reliance on local property taxes to fund education has a disparate impact on students in majority-minority districts, thus violating the Illinois Civil Rights Act.

Those trial delays are just part of the long history of the state’s failure to address inequality in school funding. The Urban League’s legal effort was preceded by three unsuccessful lawsuits. And there have been several blue ribbon commissions, all of which agreed on the problem and set out recommendations, but none succeeded in mustering the political will to act.

After legislative efforts to reform the system failed this spring, Gov. Bruce Rauner announced yet another commission. It’s charged with issuing a report by Feb. 1.

The commission will face the same political obstacles, including legislators from wealthy districts who don’t want to lose state aid but don’t want to vote for tax increases. For his part, Rauner has admitted the need for more school funding but refused to back revenue hikes.

The record of delay is “absolutely ridiculous,” Runner said – particularly since the problem is universally acknowledged. Rauner himself pointed out that Illinois is “dead last” in the percentage of school costs paid by the state and that the gap in per-pupil spending between rich and poor school districts is the highest in the nation.

“It’s perfectly clear that majority-minority school districts across the state are not funded at the same level as majority-majority districts,” Urban League’s Runner said. “It’s clear educational outcomes are suffering as a result,” and that they are primary contributors to high levels of joblessness, poverty and violence.

ISBE’s response to the Urban League’s motion for a summary judgment is due at the end of this month, and the court could rule by the end of the year, said Lisa Scruggs, attorney for the plaintiffs. Should that motion be denied, a trial would be “fairly quick,” she said.

The Urban League is seeking a declaration that the state’s school funding system violates the civil rights act, an injunction barring ISBE from continuing to implement the existing system, and an order that ISBE determine the cost of providing all its public school students with a high quality education and take steps to eliminate discrimination.

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