(Adds comments from Chicago mayor, Illinois education
secretary, state school board association head, and Columbia
By Karen Pierog and Dave McKinney
CHICAGO Feb 14 The Chicago Public Schools sued
Illinois on Tuesday claiming the state's method of education
funding discriminates against its largely black and Hispanic
The lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, uses the
state's Civil Rights Act to seek to invalidate Illinois' school
funding system. The district wants to avoid the fate of previous
school funding lawsuits that faltered in Illinois, which like
CPS is reeling from deep financial problems.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who controls CPS, said the state
funding formula is "in violation of the civil rights of our
"It penalizes poor kids in poor school districts and rewards
wealthy kids in wealthy school districts - just the opposite of
what we should do," Emanuel told reporters.
CPS officials have been critical of a move last year by
Republican Governor Bruce Rauner to veto a bill that would have
provided the district with $215 million in state money for
pensions. The move punched a hole in the district's
already shaky budget, leading to spending cuts and unpaid
furlough days for teachers.
The nation's third-largest public school system is
struggling with pension payments that will jump to $733 million
this fiscal year from $676 million in fiscal 2016, as well as
drained reserves and debt dependency. The fiscal woes have
pushed its general obligation credit ratings deep into the junk
category and led investors to demand fat yields for its debt.
The lawsuit also seeks to invalidate Illinois' system for
funding teacher pensions. CPS has railed against how it must
maintain and fund its own teachers' pension system, while
districts in the rest of Illinois are in a state-wide retirement
fund that is heavily subsidized by the state.
The lawsuit comes on the heels of a recent attempt to revamp
the way Illinois funds schools and the willingness by state
Senate leaders to include a new funding formula in a bill
package to end the state's nearly 20-month budget impasse.
School funding has been a politically volatile subject in
Illinois for decades, pitting low property tax-generating school
systems or those with mostly minority students against
well-funded systems in wealthy Chicago suburbs much less reliant
on state funding. Since the 1970s, the sides have played to a
political stalemate in the state legislature, which has rejected
efforts at a statewide fix to solve the disparity between the
haves and the have-nots in Illinois education.
The social ramifications of the debate came to a head in
2008, when nearly 2,000 Chicago school students boarded buses
bound for one of Illinois' wealthiest, highest-achieving school
districts in Chicago's north suburbs and demanded to be
The move orchestrated by advocates of Chicago's public
schools and several ministers made its visual point clearly but
did nothing to advance the cause for more equitable school
funding in Springfield, Illinois' capital.
Illinois Secretary of Education Beth Purvis said a report
released on Feb. 1 by a bipartisan commission "recommends an
equitable school funding formula that defines adequacy according
to the needs of students within each school district."
"The governor remains focused on moving forward these
recommendations and hopes that CPS will be a partner in that
endeavor," Purvis said in a statement.
Language on how to achieve that adequacy or how to come up
with an additional $3.5 billion for schools over 10 years, as
the report recommended, has yet to surface in the legislature.
General state aid to CPS in fiscal 2017 totals $952.5
million, about the same amount as in fiscal 2016, according to
the district's budget.
For 40 years, Illinois courts generally have ruled that
arguments to change how public schools are funded should play
out before the Illinois legislature, not in the state's
courtrooms. Based on that string of rulings, a prominent public
education advocate in Illinois described the Chicago school
litigation as a legal long-shot.
"I think any time you have this kind of history, it suggests
that it's a very difficult bar to overcome. Having said that, I
think we're always hopeful something will happen that will cause
the inequity issue to be addressed," said Roger Eddy, executive
director of the Illinois Association of School Boards and a
former state lawmaker and school superintendent.
Civil rights group the Chicago Urban League along with some
parents from various districts including Chicago also sued the
state over school funding using the Civil Rights Act. That
lawsuit has languished in Cook County Court since 2008.
CPS CEO Forrest Claypool told reporters that his district's
case was "very straightforward."
"I'm not aware of another case like it because I'm not sure
there is any place in the country in which the state government
itself choosing to fund public education says we are going to
give significantly less money to African-American and Latino
children in the largest school district in the state and we are
going to give a lot more money to the predominately white
children in the rest of the state," he said.
Michael Rebell, a professor at Columbia University's
Teachers College, who tracks school funding litigation, said
plaintiffs have prevailed in 23 states since 1989, while
Illinois is one of 16 states where funding challenges have
(Additional reporting by Timothy McLaughlin in Chicago; Editing
by Matthew Lewis)