January/February 2015

Editor’s Note:

This article is the second of a two-part series. In the November/December issue of The Illinois School Board Journal, the author examined the history of federal legal challenges to school funding issues. That article, available at, concluded with the United States Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez effectively closed education equity challenges at the federal level and moved school financing challenges to the state courts. This article examines the history of challenges to education funding in Illinois.

Historically, “equity” challenges to education funding have been an uphill battle. The nature of the argument is to polarize wealthy and poor districts, which increases fear that a decision for equity will produce winners and losers. While poorer districts envision funding and opportunities increasing, wealthier districts envision losing the same. The efforts to unite education at a state level also exacerbate the fear of losing local control. The inconsistency of decisions in equity challenges at the state level helped to move legal challenges from “equity” to “adequacy.”

All 50 state constitutions include an educational clause. These clauses vary from state to state and range from very general to very specific clauses. The first Illinois Constitution, ratified in 1818, did not include an education provision. The second constitution, ratified in 1848, allowed “school districts,” and other entities, the power to assess and collect taxes for corporate purposes; such taxes were to be to be “uniform in respect to persons and property within the jurisdiction.” In 1870, education earned its own article in the third Illinois constitution, which provided for a free public education for all Illinois residents and created a state board of education. In the current version adopted in 1970, the education clause (Article X, Section 1) of the Illinois Constitution states:

A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities.

The State shall provide an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services. Education in public schools through the secondary level shall be free. There may be such other free education as the General Assembly provides by law.

The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education.

Under the third Illinois Constitution, in 1877, the state Supreme Court heard its first case on education funding. In a case from Champaign County, David G. Fisher v. The People of Illinois. A taxpayer contended that school trustees were not a competent authority to levy taxes. The school district had been created by the township with the express purpose of building a schoolhouse and supporting the school. The taxpayer argued that levying taxes was another purpose altogether. The Illinois Supreme Court decided in favor of the school district, stating when the power is given to create a school, it is implied that authority is given to execute the project.

In 1879, the Illinois Supreme Court heard a LaSalle County case in which a taxpayer challenged the county treasurer regarding a school tax for a high school. In Richard v. Raymond, the taxpayer claimed that the statute which authorized establishing common schools was in conflict with the constitutional mandate to provide free schools. The court noted that a free public high school was a “common school” and that no particular course of studies constituted a common school education. The court upheld the tax levy and the collection of the tax.

By 1899, schools in Chicago were struggling with a lack of funding. The Chicago Teachers Federation researched the issue and found property assessment abuse at a corporate level. After a proceeding was begun against the assessment board, the board attempted to adopt new rules that would result in corporations being given lighter assessments. A decision in favor of the Federation was determined, and the corporations were reassessed at higher values. The resulting taxes were taken to court and went to the federal level in The Chicago Union Traction Co. v. The State Board of Equalization. The court found in favor the State Board of Equalization, affirming the higher assessment values.

In 1968, the McInnis v. Shapiro equity claim in Illinois stated that a funding system based on property tax was in violation of the 14th Amendment equal protection and due process clause. The plaintiffs’ claim was that the variations in per capita spending had deprived students of a good education. In addition, the plaintiffs wanted educational funds distributed based on educational need. However, the court dismissed the case because the 14th Amendment did not require equal per-pupil expenditure. It also noted that the variations did not result in “invidious discrimination.” A specific concern stood out in the court’s decision as a focus for future litigation: the court held that there were no “judicially manageable standards” to determine educational needs and, ultimately, educational funding.

In Blase v Illinois, a 1973 case heard by the Illinois Supreme Court, the plaintiffs claimed that the state of Illinois had primary responsibility for financing the public education system based on the education clause of the Illinois Constitution. The challenge further claimed that the state was required to provide for not less than 50 percent of the funds needed to operate the public elementary and secondary institutions. After reviewing the history of the constitutional convention, the court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal, holding that the disputed provision was intended to express a goal or objective, not to state a specific command.

In 1995, an adequacy case, The Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar challenged the legality of the Illinois financing system based on the inequity between district finances in Illinois. The plaintiffs argued that Illinois had failed to provide an “efficient system.” It was also argued that districts with little wealth could not provide a “high quality” education, especially for at-risk students. The court rejected this claim, relying on the1968 McInnis decision, and restated that “efficient system” does not mean a system that guarantees parity of funding. The court further stated, “… questions relating to the quality of education are solely for the legislative branch to answer,” and not one to be resolved in the courts.

In a 1999 case, 11 families from East St. Louis argued that the school district had failed to provide a “minimally adequate education.” In Lewis E. et al, Appellees v. Joseph A. Spagnolo, the plaintiffs argued that the buildings in the district were in “wretched disrepair,” and that the district had not provided the basic educational components such as teachers and textbooks. The complaint stated that the high dropout rate and low test scores proved that the district was not providing a high quality education. One notable point in this case was that the Illinois State Board of Education had appointed a financial oversight panel to the district in 1994. This case was dismissed, with the court restating that the quality of education is not a “judicially manageable standard” and that it belonged in the legislative arena.

In 2008, Chicago Urban League and Quad County Urban League v. the State of Illinois and the Illinois State Board of Education had three basic premises. Based on the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 2003, the claim first alleged that the funding formula was discriminatory in that it had a “demonstrable adverse” impact on African-American students, Latino students and other minority students. The second premise was that the formula violated the equal protection clause by failing to provide an “efficient system of high quality public educational institution and services.” There were two new components to the equal protection clause. The first was that No Child Left Behind standards provided a “judicially manageable standard” to determine if the state is providing a “high quality” education. The second attacked the “primary responsibility for financing the system” clause, stating:

“Since 2003 … Illinois has ranked 49 out of 50 in state contributions to school funding. The state’s share of the revenue raised for public schools in Illinois has decreased steadily, spiraling downward from a one time high of 48 percent, over thirty years ago in 1976.”

The third premise was that the funding formula breached the Uniformity of Taxation provision of the Illinois constitution, “Taxes upon real property shall be levied uniformly.” The claim maintained that the education clause would be considered a “non-delegable duty” and therefore all taxation for education would be considered state funding, rather than local funding.

The Illinois court dismissed plaintiffs’ education adequacy claims because of the precedent set in The Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar. Plaintiffs are considering an appeal to the Supreme Court to ask it to reconsider that precedent.

In March, 2010 the lawsuit Carr v. Koch, was filed. The suit was based on the equal protection clause and alleged that property-poor districts must levy taxes at a higher rate than property-wealthy districts in order to raise the same dollars. This suit also referenced the general state aid formula in particular, as well as the state-directed Illinois Learning Standards (ILS). The remedy sought was that the Illinois education financing system is unconstitutional. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint stating:

 [It] must be dismissed for failure to state a claim under the equal protection clause based upon the decision in Edgar. Defendants also argued that the ILS did not eliminate local control of schools or the ability to tax property at different rates, and that the funding of public education is a matter for the legislature, not the courts, to address.

This case was dismissed by the appellate court and the decision confirmed by the Illinois Supreme Court.

Historically, judicial challenges to the state’s education financing system have been unsuccessful in Illinois, whether addressing the issue from an adequacy perspective or one of equity. The Illinois courts have continued to state that education is not a judicial issue, but rather a legislative one. With the future of school funding under ongoing discussion in the Illinois legislature, it might be difficult to predict the nature of future court challenges. However, the growing reliance on local funding along with the state’s fiscal problems would indicate that Illinois can expect more legal challenges in the future.

Resource citations

Ill. CONST. of 1970, art. X, § 1 (1970)

David G. Fisher v. The People of Illinois, 84 Ill. 491 (1877)

Richard v. Raymond, 92 Ill. 612 (1879)

The Chicago Union Traction Co. v. The State Board of Equalization, 112 F. 607

McInnis v. Shapiro, 293 F Supp. 327 (1968)

Blase v Illinois, 55 Ill. 2d 94; 302 N.E.2d 46; 1973 Ill. LEXIS 235

The Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar, 672 N.E.2d 1178 (1996)

Lewis E. et al, Appellees v. Joseph A. Spagnolo, 186 Ill. 2d 198; 710 N.E.2d 798; 1999 Ill. LEXIS 666; 238 Ill. Dec. 1

Chicago Urban League and Quad County Urban League v. the State of Illinois and the Illinois State Board of Education,

20 USCS § 6311

Ill. CONST. of 1970, art. 1X, § 4

Carr v. Koch, 963 N.E.2d 244; 2012 Ill. LEXIS 94; 357 Ill. Dec. 291