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State High Court Weighs — Again — Whether Education Funding Goals Are Constitutionally Required

Carter Staley
NPR Illinois

The Illinois Supreme Court is considering whether Gov. JB Pritzker is legally obligated to recommend more state spending on K-12 education.

But lawyers for the state say it’s not Pritzker — or any governor — the schools have an issue with; it’s the legislature itself, which passes state budgets for the governor to sign.

On Tuesday, attorneys for 22 downstate school districts asked the state’s high court to take a fresh look at a decades-old issue the justices have ruled on before, hoping for a different outcome — and millions/billions more dollars that would come with a win.

The Illinois General Assembly in 2017 approved a new education funding formula mandating increased school funding year over year for a decade in order to force more parity between poor and wealthy school districts, as well as try to drive down property tax costs over time

The new formula, referred to as the Evidence-Based Model, was designed to allow schools — particularly underfunded schools — to reach pre-determined adequacy funding goals by June 2027.

The law called on the state to increase evidence-based funding by at least $350 million each year — something Pritzker has requested for the fiscal year 2022 budget after not increasing funding last year due to the pandemic. The governor earlier this year said Illinois couldn’t afford the extra funding, but with the state’s improved economic outlook and revenue forecasts, Pritzker changed course in early May.

Thomas Geoghegan, an attorney for the 22 districts, told justices Tuesday that Pritzker is not living up to the goals outlined in the funding formula and is therefore violating a provision in the state constitution to achieve efficient education funding.

“The full funding of this Evidence-Based funding act is a constitutional obligation of the state, and the governor has to accept it as such,” Geoghegan said.

Geoghegan chastised Pritzker for only advocating for bare minimum funding increases to the Evidence-Based Model, a rate of increase that if held constant will fall short of the 2027 deadline.

“The Center for Tax and Budget Accountability estimates that at the current rate that we're proceeding and given inflation in these numbers...we're not likely to achieve this full funding goal until 2059,” Geoghegan said.

According to a fiscal year 2022 budget proposal released in February by the Illinois State Board of Education, in order to reach the 2027 goal the legislature would need to significantly increase funding each year by nearly $800 million — more than double the current rate.

Throughout its history, the state Supreme Court has consistently ruled inequitable school funding among districts does not violate the Illinois constitution.

In Blase v. State (1973), which was decided three years after Illinois’ current constitution was adopted, the court ruled the state is not required to make education funding equitable across different districts, finding it’s not a mandate, but is more of a desirable goal.

In Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar (1996) and Lewis E. v. Spagnolo (1999), although plaintiffs argued a strong reliance on property taxes for education funding had resulted in significant disparities in the amount of resources and high quality content that could be provided to students, the court ruled a constitutional goal to create an efficient system of educational funding doesn’t specifically require the state to achieve funding parity.

As Justice Michael Burke told attorneys during Tuesday’s oral argument, “[Former Illinois Supreme Court Justice Charles Freeman] wrote thatEdgar shut the door to education article claims, and Lewis E. nailed it shut.”

But attorneys for the school districts argued Illinois’ 2017 school funding law defined quality education and the funding levels necessary to achieve those standards. The districts also contend the EBF model indicates a shift in policy away from local control of school funding, which would compel the state Supreme Court to take another look at the issue.

However, Assistant Attorney General Richard Huszagh, who represents Pritzker in the case, said although adequate education funding is not judicially required, it can be pushed for in a political arena.

“You hold up the education article to the legislature every time they go to enact appropriations and say, ‘Look, in the constitution, the people said this is something you need to do,’” Huszagh said. “So it's a political right; it's not a judicially enforceable right.”

Huszagh also took issue with Pritzker being named as the defendant in this case. Previous attempts to instead name the state as a defendant were dismissed in lower courts in accordance with the precedent set by the 1996 case.

Huzagh argued the legislature is more involved in determining funding levels, and that the court should not insert itself into establishing mandatory funding levels for education.

“The success or failure of what the legislature does is at its feet,” Huzagh said “The last thing this court needs to do is to itself become responsible for the success or failure of state funding on public education.”

The Illinois Supreme Court will decide the case later this year.

Derek Cantù is NPR Illinois' graduate student Public Affairs Reporting intern for the spring 2021 legislative session.
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