School funding lawsuit leaps ‘major hurdle’

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Education advocates are savoring their first victory in a legal case challenging Illinois’ school funding system and say the win comes at a critical juncture in state budget talks.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Martin S. Agran threw out four discrimination counts levied against the state by the Chicago Urban League and its partners in the case; counts that largely rehashed failed arguments used in previous lawsuits. But Agran bolstered the Urban League’s case by ruling that a fifth count, which relies on the state’s Civil Rights Act of 2003 to claim that the state’s funding system discriminates against minority children, features compelling evidence and deserves further exploration.

Calling it a “major hurdle” cleared, Chicago Urban League President and CEO Cheryle Jackson says that no other challenge to the state’s inequitable funding system has made it this far in the legal process.

Education advocates are savoring their first victory in a legal case challenging Illinois’ school funding system and say the win comes at a critical juncture in state budget talks.

Cook County Circuit Court Judge Martin S. Agran threw out four discrimination counts levied against the state by the Chicago Urban League and its partners in the case; counts that largely rehashed failed arguments used in previous lawsuits. But Agran bolstered the Urban League’s case by ruling that a fifth count, which relies on the state’s Civil Rights Act of 2003 to claim that the state’s funding system discriminates against minority children, features compelling evidence and deserves further exploration.

Calling it a “major hurdle” cleared, Chicago Urban League President and CEO Cheryle Jackson says that no other challenge to the state’s inequitable funding system has made it this far in the legal process.

“To say that we are excited and thrilled is an understatement,” she adds. “This proves that education is the civil rights issue of the 21st Century.”

The lawsuit could take months, if not years, to litigate, however. So, looking for a more immediate remedy, advocates hope that the judge’s ruling would send a strong message to Gov. Pat Quinn and state lawmakers this budget season.

“This lawsuit helps put the political pressure on legislators to do the right thing,” says state Rep. David Miller (D-Chicago).

Miller and other legislators like state Sen. James Meeks want funding reforms that ease property taxes for schools while significantly boosting state spending on education. The changes would help alleviate the state’s gross disparities in per-pupil funding between property-rich and property-poor school districts.

Facing a crippling budget deficit, Quinn has proposed a major hike in taxes this year. But his budget proposal features only a modest increase in education funding, although a windfall in federal stimulus dollars was earmarked for education. Property tax relief was not part of the governor’s plan.

Miller says the budget “games are just beginning” and wants to get a petition circulating in the State House that would spell out a set of principles and a commitment to education reform. He says a similar petition has started to make the rounds in the state senate.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron Huberman struck a less optimistic tone. He says the latest development in the Urban League case will have little impact on budget talks in Springfield. He did, however, characterize the ruling as a “positive long-term” development and promised the district’s ongoing legal support.

On May 5, the case returns to court to set a schedule for further proceedings.