Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

School Districts Sue Illinois for Failing to Adequately Fund Public Education

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

School Districts Sue Illinois for Failing to Adequately Fund Public Education

Article excerpt

School districts in the Metro East area and across Southern Illinois are accusing the state's school funding formula of being unconstitutional.

Seventeen school districts filed a lawsuit Wednesday alleging that the Illinois school funding formula does not sufficiently support school districts. Article 10 of the state constitution says Illinois must "provide an efficient system of high-quality education." These 17 school districts, which are in low-wealth districts and spend below the state per-pupil average, say the state does not give them enough money to deliver a "high-quality education."

Their grievance is broader than the state's budget crisis, which has starved school districts of millions of dollars because leaders in Springfield cannot agree on a spending plan.

Cahokia and Grant school districts in St. Clair County and Bethalto and Wood River-Hartford in Madison County are four Metro East districts joining in the suit filed against Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Illinois State Board of Education. The announcement came the morning after voters in Madison and St. Clair struck down two 1-cent sales tax proposals that would have provided tens of millions for school facility projects and potentially could have reduced some districts' property tax rates.

Tuesday's loss was a blow to districts that already have suffered from staff reductions, enrollment losses and loss of money for services as basic as transportation. For some districts, the measure was one of their last chances to raise money and salvage their budgets.

Cahokia, for instance, already has a tax rate of $13.08 for each $100 of assessed value, which is three times higher than typical school tax rates. It would be difficult to persuade voters to raise it further.

Over the past five or so years, the district received $14 million less from the state than it was supposed to get. It has made do by cutting 80 positions, closing three buildings and stripping after-school programs and sports including soccer, golf and tennis. No class in the school has fewer than 30 students even the kindergarten classes. Three-fourths of Cahokia students are low-income.

"To be honest with you, we have cut so far down to the bone that there really isn't anything else left for us to cut," said Arthur Ryan, superintendent of Cahokia schools and one of the spokesmen for the lawsuit.

In a statement, Illinois Secretary of Education Beth Purvis said Rauner had increased school funding by $700 million since taking office. Rauner also convened a bipartisan commission last year to create a more equitable school funding formula. In early February, the commission recommended setting a "clearly defined" adequate funding target for each district based on their student needs and allocating more resources to low-income students.

"The governor never stops working to increase funding for our students and hopes school districts across Illinois will work with him and members of the General Assembly on this endeavor," Purvis said in the statement.

A spokeswoman from the Illinois State Board of Education declined to comment on pending litigation.

DEFINING QUALITY

In 1996, a group of about 60 school districts and 37 individual school districts filed a lawsuit against the state similar to the one filed Wednesday. That lawsuit also alleged that the state failed to give schools the resources to provide a high-quality education.

But that suit was defeated in the state Supreme Court because the court declined to define in concrete terms what "high-quality" means.

Now, plaintiffs in Wednesday's lawsuit say the state has itself defined what makes a "high-quality education." It did so, plaintiffs say, when the Illinois State Board of Education established the Illinois Learning Standards in 1997, which outlines performance mandates for all school districts to meet. …

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