By Kiannah Sepeda-Miller
SPRINGFIELD — Illinois has failed to provide enough money to public schools to produce the “high-quality education” the state requires, forcing districts to cut programs, lay off staff and borrow money to keep the doors open, educators claim in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.
Superintendents for 17 central- and southern-Illinois districts said they filed the action in St. Clair County Circuit Court in the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis. They contend the state has fallen short of its constitutional duty to sufficiently finance the top-notch schooling state officials require since adopting learning standards in the late 1990s. The lawsuit didn’t immediately appear in online court records.
The shortfall hits less-affluent districts hardest, the lawsuit says. The districts lack the property wealth necessary to generate enough revenue in real estate taxes to make up the difference.
“It’s as if we’ve been using duct tape and superglue to keep our system from collapsing altogether,” Dan Cox, school superintendent for the Staunton School District, one of the plaintiffs.
Each of the 17 districts spends less than the per-pupil state average and have increased class sizes, cut programs and relied on community support to keep schools running, he said at a state Capitol news conference.
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, the Illinois State Board of Education and the state itself are named as defendants.
Schools are required to comply with guidelines the board set in 1997 that were aligned with federal standards in 2010. The superintendents said they support the standards but need the state to increase funds to achieve them.
Rauner’s education adviser Beth Purvis issued a statement Wednesday saying school districts are receiving record levels of funding under the first-term governor.
“The governor never stops working to increase funding for our students and hopes school districts across Illinois will work with him,” she said.
Rauner has ended the practice of providing general state funding at reduced levels following six years of these lower payments. But state dollars meant to reimburse districts for special education, transportation and other programs have long been and continue to be shortchanged.
The superintendents emphasized that high standards do little to improve learning while schools await these reduced payments now backlogged amid the state’s two-year budget stalemate.
The standards outline learning ‘benchmarks’ students should reach by the end of each grade and are monitored with standardized tests.
“How relevant are these standards if I don’t have the most basic funding necessary to take students to and from school every day?” asked Bethalto School Superintendent Jill Griffin.
Illinois courts have weighed in before on school-district funding challenges. In 1996, the state’s highest court ruled the issue should be argued in the Legislature, leveling a blow to a group of districts that had challenged the constitutionality of how Illinois funds schools.
But Michael Persoon, an attorney for the superintendents, said that ruling was made when no explicit statewide standards existed to define a quality education. Now, he said, those standards amount to “more than a hundred unfunded mandates.”
The new lawsuit calls on the state to alleviate that burden by calculating how much it costs districts to comply to ensure they get the funds to pay for it.
Lawmakers are considering the latest in a long line of measures that would overhaul the state’s outdated funding formula, but the proposal that would funnel additional revenue to low-income districts faces an uncertain future. Plans for revamping school aid have come and gone without success in Illinois for decades.
Southwestern School Superintendent Brad Skertich said the proposal represents a “vehicle towards change” but cautioned schools cannot afford to wait.
“Our backs are against the wall,” he said.