On September 30, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal in Cahokia Unit School District No. 187 v. Pritzker, a case challenging inadequate and inequitable school funding that could potentially alter the landscape of school funding jurisprudence in the state.
The plaintiffs in the Cahokia lawsuit are twenty-two, low-wealth school districts across the state. They filed their lawsuit in 2018, charging that the State of Illinois has persistently underfunded their schools, depriving their students of their right to a high quality education under the Education Clause of the Illinois constitution.
The plaintiffs are represented by Thomas Geoghegan of the law firm Despres, Schwartz & Geoghegan, Ltd. in Chicago.
In 1996, in Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the Education Clause was a non-justiciable political question 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 for the State Legislature.
In the ensuing years, the Legislature took up that mantle, adopting the Illinois Learning Standards, which detail the specific educational experience to which all students in Illinois are entitled. The State also adopted tests to measure students’ progress on the Learning Standards.
In 2017, in response to intense political pressure, the Legislature enacted the Funding Act of 2017, designed to provide the resources essential for all students to achieve the State’s Learning Standards. In 2018, the State Board of Education determined, pursuant to the Funding Act’s criteria, that an additional $7.2 billion was required to provide adequate and equitable resources for all students. The Funding Act established a deadline of 2027 for full funding of the adequacy amount.
However, even in the first year of the Act’s decade-long phase-in to full funding, the state failed to provide the requisite installment of state school aid. This failure lies as the heart of the Cahokia lawsuit, in which the plaintiffs contend that the State is already so far behind on funding the new formula that full funding will not be achieved even by 2047.
The Cahokia plaintiffs presented data establishing a correlation between inadequate State and local per-pupil funding and failure rates on state assessments. The plaintiffs also demonstrated a wide disparity in passing rates on state assessments between students in low-wealth districts, which are inadequately funded, and in affluent districts.
In July 2018, the State defendants moved to dismiss the lawsuit, contending that the case was beyond the reach of the courts, or “not justiciable,” based on the Supreme Court’s 1996 Edgar ruling. The trial court agreed and dismissed the complaint. In April 2020, in a split decision, the Appellate Court of Illinois affirmed the dismissal, noting that the Legislature’s enactment of the Illinois Learning Standards did call into question the holding in Edgar. However, the appeals court also ruled that overturning this precedent is the exclusive province of the Illinois Supreme Court.
Appellate Court Justice Milton S. Wharton filed a vigorous dissent, asserting that the court has a duty to address the issues in the case “instead of ignoring or postponing this critical issue of utmost urgency and importance to our citizens and our State with an overly broad application of Edgar ‘s holding.” Justice Wharton concluded that since Edgar, the Legislature has “determined the education students must receive” and, as a result, “courts no longer need to make that determination in order to resolve claims that students in under-resourced districts are not receiving the high quality education mandated by our State constitution.”
The Cahokia plaintiffs filed a petition for leave to appeal in the Illinois Supreme Court in July. The Supreme Court’s decision to accept the case provides the opportunity to revisit its decision in Edgar in light of the Legislature’s actions since 1996 that have defined the substantive contours of a quality education for Illinois public school students.
In 2017, in a case very similar to Cahokia, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reconsidered its previous ruling that constitutional education adequacy claims were non justiciable. In William Penn School District, et al., v. Pennsylvania Department of Education, et al., the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the plaintiffs (a coalition of school districts, parents, children and advocacy groups) were entitled to proceed to trial on their school funding claims. The Court declined to follow its earlier decision, now holding that it was possible to devise a judicially enforceable standard of educational adequacy. The Court further held that failure to adjudicate school funding claims would make a “hollow mockery of judicial review.”
A similar decision by the Illinois Supreme Court would allow the plaintiffs to proceed to trial to prove their case and would finally provide, as Justice Wharton declared, “an avenue [for] under-resourced school districts like the plaintiffs to insist on funding that is adequate to serve their students” in the manner to which they are entitled under the Illinois constitution.
Education Law Center is providing assistance to the Cahokia plaintiffs’ attorneys and working with the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law on an amicus brief before the Illinois Supreme Court.
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