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Chicago District Threatens Shorter Year; Summer School Cancellation

Chicago education leaders are asking a Cook County judge to compel the state of Illinois to give the city's public schools more money to ward off an early shutdown to the school year and cancellation of summer school for some students.

In a court filing in Circuit Court in Cook County on Monday, the district argued that it could be pushed to take those drastic steps to make up for $215 million it expected to receive from the state, but which Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed in December. 

The filing that seeks a preliminary injunction to bar the state from disbursing education funds until it does so in a way that does not discriminate against Chicago's students is part of a lawsuit the district and five parents filed on Feb. 14. The district and parents argue that the state's funding formula has created two separate and unequal systems, one for the Hispanic and black students who make up the majority of the student body in Chicago's public schools and the other for the rest of the state's students.

Chicago students were shortchanged by $500 million and since Rauner's veto, "a dire situation that has become intolerably worse," the district argues in the legal filing.

"...Absent the Court's intervention, CPS already has made cuts that affect the classroom, and CPS will have no choice but to make even more painful cuts," the district wrote in court documents. "Those cuts, forced upon CPS by the State's discriminatory funding, deprive children of a quality education—harms that have long-run consequences, harms that are clear-cut and profound."

In a letter to parents, the district said that summer school could be eliminated for elementary students, except for those in special education, the Chicago Tribune reported. 

In addition to making up the $215 million, the district also has to make a $721 million payment to the Teachers' Pension Fund at the end of June. Chicago is the only district in the state that solely shoulders its teachers' pension obligation. 

But not everyone is on board with the district's new legal approach. When the district filed its lawsuit, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis called the lawsuit a "fake fight" and asked why the district had not enlisted the union.

In a statement on Monday,  the union called the lawsuit against the state "a cynical political ploy designed to divert attention from the failed leadership and flawed decision-making of Mayor [Rahm] Emanuel, who has failed to adequately pursue progressive revenue for the city's schools."

The union argues that the district can find revenue—including using more TIF surplus funds and other taxes—to plug the budget gap.

"The mayor behaving as if he has zero solutions is incredibly irresponsible," Lewis said in the statement. "Rahm wants us to let him off the hook for under-funding our schools and instead wait for the Bad Bargain to pass the Senate or Rauner's cold, cold heart to melt and provide fair funds. He needs to look at his wealthy friends and at the TIF money he has already collected to provide what our schools need."

And while the district argues that the state funding system shortchanges Hispanic and African-American students, nearly all of the members of the district's Latino Advisory Committee quit in protest last week, contending that a district discretionary spending freeze disproportionately fell on predominantly Hispanic schools.

On Friday, the district announced that in response to concerns, it was returning $15 million in frozen funds to high-poverty schools. 

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