Education Law Center and the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief on December 3 in the Illinois Supreme Court urging the Court to permit a lawsuit challenging inequitable school funding to proceed to trial.
Several prominent advocacy organizations joined in the amicus brief, including Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, Chicago United for Equity, Illinois Families for Public Schools, Parents 4 Teachers, and Raise Your Hand for Illinois Public Education. These groups, and the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, are members of the Partnership for Equity and Education Rights (PEER), a network of advocates for school funding reform in seven states.
The plaintiffs in Cahokia Unit School District No. 187 v. Pritzker are 22 low-wealth school districts in downstate Illinois. As part of their claim, they are asking the Illinois Supreme Court to reconsider its 1996 ruling in Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar that lawsuits challenging inequitable and inadequate school funding under the Illinois Constitution’s Quality Education Clause are political questions beyond court jurisdiction.
The school districts in the Cahokia case are represented by Thomas Geoghegan of the Despres, Schwartz & Geoghegan law firm in Chicago. The amici groups are represented pro bono by Marcie Lape and Nick Schnell of the Chicago office of the Skadden Arps law firm.
In Edgar, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that school funding claims under the Quality Education Clause were not amenable to judicial branch review because the “quality of education” was not “capable of or properly subject to measurement by the courts.” The Court held that defining the quality of education was a matter left to the State Legislature.
After the Edgar ruling, the Illinois Legislature enacted a robust framework of educational standards and assessments for every grade level, thus providing a clear definition of a “quality education.” The Legislature went even further in 2017, enacting an evidenced-based funding formula to ensure that all students would have the resources necessary to meet state standards and receive the quality education mandated by the state constitution. In their brief, the amici groups note that by linking the funding formula, known as the “EBF,” to the Quality Education Clause, the State implicitly admitted that existing state funding was inadequate under the Illinois Constitution.
The brief details the real-life consequences of decades of inadequate school funding in Illinois. Low-wealth districts, which also serve larger portions of Black and Latino students and English language learners, had “on average, thousands of dollars less in per-pupil funding, significantly lower test scores, and lower graduation rates.” At the time the EBF was enacted, the gap between existing school funding and adequate school funding for Black and Latino students was double the gap for white students.
The amici groups further note that the Legislature has failed to adequately fund the new formula, and, at the current pace of funding, “schools will not be fully funded under the EBF until 2044.” Consequently, “many Illinois students will be deprived of an adequate education for an additional 24 years on top of the generations of students in high poverty districts who have endured decades of inadequate funding and resources already.”
The brief details the severe deprivation of essential educational resources in these schools, including librarians, social workers, nurses and teachers’ assistants, as well as laptops, tablets, and other technology to meet students’ remote learning needs during the current pandemic.
The brief stresses that the concerns in the Edgar ruling of judicial overreach have now been set aside by the Legislature’s action establishing a detailed, substantive definition of a high quality education consistent with its obligations under the constitution. “Now that the Legislature has enacted standards that can guide judicial decision-making,” the brief argues, “the courts must ensure that Illinois children have the ability to receive the education they are guaranteed.” The brief warns that “a constitutional right that is not backed by judicial authority is an empty promise, and that is exactly what the children of Illinois have experienced since the Court’s decision in Edgar.”
The amici groups are urging the Illinois Supreme Court to follow the lead of myriad sister state courts that have recognized the judiciary’s power and, indeed, duty to adjudicate school funding claims. Judicial review, the groups conclude, “will ensure that courts serve their fundamental institutional role of safeguarding the high quality public education that all school children deserve and are entitled to under the Illinois Constitution.”
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