Update by Joshua J. Cauhorn, Associate at Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella’s Litigation practice group and author of The Search for the Magic Formula: History of Illinois School Funding Reform.
Despite Illinois ranking dead last in the country in school funding equity, the majority of Illinois political leaders do not seem to feel the urgency in reforming America’s worst school funding system. Worse than ever, in 2015, Illinois spent 81 cents on average per low-income student for every $1 it spent on a non-low-income student.
Recognizing this problem, over eight years ago, a number of grassroots organizations decided to jolt Illinois leaders into action, filing a sweeping lawsuit against the Illinois State Board of Education (“ISBE”) known as Chicago Urban League v. Illinois State Board of Education. The plaintiffs, a number of community organizations and diverse families with students in Illinois public schools, argue that Illinois’ school funding formula has a discriminatory effect on African American and Hispanic students. The case has brought to light inequities in how Illinois funds its schools and has increasingly placed pressure on Illinois leaders to overhaul the funding system.
Any state agency which adopts and implements a policy that has the effect of discriminating based on race violates the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 2003 (“ICRA”). Unlike some racial discrimination laws, ICRA does not require evidence that an agency intended to discriminate based on race, only that its actions have the effect of discrimination. Thus, any policy put into practice by ISBE that has a racially discriminatory effect necessarily violates ICRA and is illegal.
As a whole, the Urban League case points out a number of ISBE’s racially discriminatory school funding practices. In late fall 2016, the plaintiffs seized an opportunity to obtain a court ruling on a single issue in the case, filing a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment and asking the court to rule on whether ISBE’s practice of proration, which ISBE acknowledges hurts districts in Illinois that serve students who need additional resources the most, has the effect of discriminating based on race and thus is illegal under ICRA. The Court’s ruling on this issue has the potential to solidify what should be obvious to anyone who compares ISBE’s actions against funding data. ISBE’s practice of proration, in which it makes cuts in state funding across the board without regard to need, takes a higher percentage of school funds away from African American and Hispanic students, who already are funded at lower levels, than it does from White students. To boot, ISBE even admits that another, nondiscriminatory way to distribute funding exists but declines to enact it. Regardless of the outcome of the motion, the plaintiffs will still be able to pursue the remainder of their case, specifically that Illinois’ school funding system overall – not just ISBE’s practice of proration – violates ICRA by having a racially discriminatory impact on Illinois schoolchildren.
The Urban League case highlights the need for immediate funding reform. The current school funding formula discriminates against minority and low-income students, and every year that passes means another year of Illinois failing its neediest students. It is these students who have the most to gain – and lose – from public schooling. The Urban League case injects a new sense of urgency into the school funding conversation in Illinois, and with the pending motion for Summary Judgment, that urgency may soon solidify into a court judgment that ISBE has violated ICRA and must end its discriminatory proration policy. The parties expect the Court to decide the pending Motion in January 2017.