CPS mulling support for Urban League lawsuit

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Chicago Public Schools
officials may file a “friends of the court” brief in support of the Chicago Urban League lawsuit charging unfair
school funding practices in Illinois.

CPS lawyers agree with claims in the lawsuit that the state’s
educational funding structure is broken and needs to be fixed to yield more
equitable results. But the district will probably draw the line at endorsing
the civil rights claimsthat are arguably the most powerful and strategic assertions in the lawsuit.


Chicago Public Schools
officials may file a “friends of the court” brief in support of the Chicago Urban League lawsuit charging unfair
school funding practices in Illinois.

CPS lawyers agree with claims in the lawsuit that the state’s
educational funding structure is broken and needs to be fixed to yield more
equitable results. But the district will probably draw the line at endorsing
the civil rights claimsthat are arguably the most powerful and strategic assertions in the lawsuit.

The Illinois Civil Rights
Act of 2003 provides the Urban League with a new
platform for challenging the state’s funding structure. The act passed shortly after a U.S. Supreme Court decision
(Alexander vs. Sandoval) created complications for charging federal civil
rights violations in cases where harm caused
to protected groups was unintentional. The law in Illinois
reinforces federal civil rights and, among other things,prohibits governing in
ways that hurt protected classes.

In its lawsuit, the Urban League argues that spending too little on
education in school districts that are
largely minority, poorly performing and very limited property resources amounts
to a civil rights violation.

Dawn Clark
Netsch, a professor of law at NorthwesternUniversity who once ran for governor
on a platform emphasizing school funding reform, characterizes the Urban League
lawsuit as a civil rights-focused approach that carves out new turf in Illinois’ long legal
history over school financing.

Legal challenges
to the state’s education funding structure were mounted in two separate cases
during the 1990s. Netsch says the first case, Committee for Educational Rights
vs. Edgar, primarily raised questions around the equity of school funding in Illinois; and the second case, Lewis vs. Spagnolo, focused on whether
state funding levels were sufficient or adequate. In both cases, the court left
the issues for legislators to sort out.

Netsch says these
cases present “pretty heavy roadblocks” in court. Without a new legal hook, she
notes, “You’re likely to be out of court pretty fast.”

The federal No Child Left Behind Act and the Illinois
Learning Standards—both introduced since courts threw out the last school
funding case—also changed the legal landscape by clarifyingdefinitions of quality schooling.

Also in the
Chicago Urban League lawsuit are
claims related to the
state constitutions provisions for uniformity in taxation. Because the bulk of funding for Illinois
schools comes from local taxes, property-poor districts are forced to tax
themselves at higher rates—a major disincentive for new business growth—to
cover the costs of public schools.  

Despite higher
tax rates, however, these districts recover less money for their schools. For
instance, 112 school districts that taxed property at 5 percent or more reaped, on average, $6,000 per child; yet 83 districts that taxed property at 2
percent or less recovered more than $12,700 per child. (See this analysis by The Chicago Reporter.)

Last month, several families with minority children in under-funded schools
were added as plaintiffs to the Chicago Urban League case. Lawyers are hopeful that more school districts, especially
those where
the newly added plaintiffs reside, will join CPS in offering support.