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Chicago School Board Sues Illinois Alleging Discrimination in School Funding

This post has been updated.

The Chicago school board, along with five parents, sued Gov. Bruce Rauner and the state of Illinois on Tuesday, alleging that the state's education funding formula creates a separate and unequal education system that discriminates against the district's students, most of whom are black and Hispanic. 

The lawsuit, filed in Circuit Court in Cook County, Ill., asks the court to declare that the state's education funding formula and the district's pension-funding obligation are unlawful under the 2003 Civil Rights Act. The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction to stop the state from distributing school funds and implementing a pension-funding system that discriminates against Chicago students.

The district and parents argue that the funding system results in Chicago students—who are more likely than other students in the state to be black and Hispanic—receiving 76 cents in fiscal year 2016 for every dollar that students outside of the city in predominantly white districts receive.

"I don't think there is another situation like this in the United States, where the state itself, alone, is choosing to fund education in a racially discriminatory way—in a very blatant way," Forrest Claypool, the CEO of the 381,000-student Chicago Public Schools, said Tuesday.

Unlike many school funding cases, the Chicago school board's argument is not predicated on the how much money the state allocates to education overall, but on how that money is distributed among school districts.

"Here, the case is simply you've decided to fund education, that's fine, but you can't do it in a discriminatory way," Claypool said. "Yet that is what the state does. They choose to give far fewer dollars to black and brown kids. And that is not only unlawful—it's immoral. The message the state is sending is that black and brown poor kids in Chicago mean less than the children in the rest of predominantly white Illinois." 

Under the state's Civil Rights Act, the district does not have to prove that the state intentionally discriminated against the students in Chicago but that the state policies fell disproportionately on the members of a protected class based on race, color, gender, or national origin.

Ongoing Funding Dispute

Tuesday's lawsuit was the latest step in the long-running dispute over money between the Chicago school district and Gov. Rauner.

The cash-strapped district has argued that while it has 20 percent of the state's students, and the city contributes 20 percent of the state's tax receipts, Chicago students receive only 15 percent of state education funding.

Upping Chicago's share to 20 percent would add about $500 million more to the district coffers, the district has argued.

"Half a billion dollars a year&mdashthat's the difference between being able to protect our classrooms and meet our legal obligation to the pension fund and the situation we are in now—which is on the financial brink and having to cut [in the] classrooms," Claypool said. "It's a situation that's only going to get worse unless we are able to win this battle, either in Springfield or in the courts."

Chicago is the only district in the state that funds most of its own pension program. In fiscal 2017, the district expects to contribute $1,891 per student toward its pension payments, while districts outside of Chicago can expect to spend only $86 per student to cover their pension costs, according to the lawsuit. The result is that Chicago diverts a higher percentage of its budget away from education to cover pension payments than other districts in the state, the lawsuit argues.

The lawsuit makes it clear that the district is not asking the state to limit the rights of the Teachers' Pension Fund or the Teachers' Retirement System.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis told the Chicago Tribune that the district had not consulted the union about joining the legal action against the state, and she characterized the lawsuit as a "fake fight."

"Why didn't they ask us, and talk to us about it? Because CPS does stuff on their own," the paper quoted Lewis as saying. "They don't bother to think that we may have some value to them. We have been talking about this for a very long time. I am underwhelmed."

In addition to Rauner, the lawsuit names as defendants the Illinois Board of Education; Rev. James T. Meeks, the chairman of the Illinois Board of Education; Tony Smith, the state's schools superintendent; and Susana Mendoza, the state comptroller. 

Beth Purvis, the state education secretary who is appointed by Rauner, said in a statement that officials had just received the lawsuit and were in the process of reviewing it. She also noted that a bipartisan, bicameral school funding commission had recently released a report on state school funding that "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," she said.

The report by the  Illinois School Funding Reform Commission, which was released earlier this month, noted that, on average, the districts with the greatest number of low-income students got 20 percent less in funding than wealthier districts. While commissioners agreed that low-income students in high-poverty districts should get more resources to help them academically and discussed ways to address funding for students in poverty, the commissioners did not settle on a model.  

The Chicago school district has had to amend its budget several times since approving it last August. It did so in December after inking a contract with the teachers' union. It also had to make additional changes after Gov. Rauner vetoed a legislative package in December that would have sent $215 million to the district. Just last week, the district announced another $46 million spending freeze.

Additional cuts will imperil the gains the district has made in recent years, Claypool argued.

"We feel like we are at the point where we have to seek a court remedy in order to enforce the civil rights of our children, who only get one chance for a good education," Claypool said. "They can't sit around waiting on a dysfunctional political process year after year."

The five Chicago parents—Marlon Gosa, Lisa Russell, Wanda Taylor, Vanessa Valentin, and Judith Vazquez—have children in grades 5-9.

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