Constitutionality of the State’s Public Education Funding
Continuing the Illinois courts’ historical trend of denying constitutional challenges to the State’s public education funding system, the Fifth District Appellate Court (Court) held that the Circuit Court of St. Clair County properly dismissed a complaint filed by 21 Illinois school districts (Plaintiffs) against Governor Pritzker and the State of Illinois (Defendants) alleging inadequate school funding in violation of the Illinois Constitution.
In 1997, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) adopted the Illinois Learning Standards, which set forth certain skills that Illinois students must demonstrate at different grade levels. Since then, the Learning Standards have developed and evolved to include Common Core State Standards for English, Language Arts, and Mathematics.
Plaintiffs’ complaint alleged that while the State required them to adhere to the Learning Standards and Illinois passed the Evidenced Based Funding Act of 2017 (Funding Act) (allowing under-resourced districts to apply for additional funding to meet the Learning Standards requirements), Defendants were not providing adequate funding to their under-resourced districts. Specifically, in Count I Plaintiffs alleged that ISBE calculated that the State must spend an additional $7.2 billion (or $15.7 billion annually) to provide students with the “high quality” education required by Article X of the Illinois Constitution, and failing to do so violates the Illinois Constitution. In Count II, Plaintiffs alleged that disparities in per pupil expenditures across Illinois school districts have no legitimate basis in law, and operating such an unconstitutional system of public education deprives Plaintiffs and their students of equal protection in violation of Article I of the Illinois Constitution. In relief, Plaintiffs sought a declaration that Defendants have a constitutional obligation to provide adequate funding, determined by ISBE and pursuant to the Funding Act.
Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, asserting that: 1) Plaintiffs lacked standing to assert the rights of the students in their districts, 2) Defendants were immune due to the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which protects the State and state actors like the Governor from lawsuits and says that Illinois can only be named as a defendant in the Court of Claims, 3) Plaintiffs failed to state a cause of action for a deprivation of constitutional rights, and 4) the Governor was not a proper party in Plaintiffs’ complaint because he did not have the power to ensure that the State would set aside enough money for the under-funded districts. The circuit court granted Defendants’ motion to dismiss with prejudice, and Plaintiffs appealed.
On appeal, the Court first agreed that the doctrine of sovereign immunity protects the State from suit, and it dismissed the State of Illinois as a Defendant. For argument’s sake, however, the Court did not determine if sovereign immunity protected the Governor and it analyzed Plaintiffs’ claims against him. Regarding Count I, the Court cited Illinois Supreme Court precedent established in Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar, 174 Ill. 2d 1 (1996), which held that determining whether educational institutions and services in Illinois are “high quality” is “outside the sphere of judicial function.” Plaintiffs argued that this case differed because we now had Learning Standards and the General Assembly had defined what funding is required for “high quality” education under the Funding Act. The Court was not swayed, finding that only the Illinois Supreme Court could disturb its previous holding, and it dismissed Count I. Regarding Count II, the Court again deferred to Edgar, which had also considered the same question posed by Count II and had determined that the State’s public education funding system is rationally related to the legitimate State goal of promoting local control – meaning the courts would not interfere. For these reasons, the Court affirmed the dismissal of Plaintiffs’ complaint with prejudice.
Notably, Justice Wharton dissented in part, stating “I believe that we have a duty to address the education quality and funding issues presented by the 21 plaintiffs instead of ignoring or postponing this critical issue of utmost urgency and importance to our citizens and our State with an overly-broad application of Edgar’s holding.” Wharton pointed out that while courts must defer to supreme court precedent “regardless of the impact of any societal evolution that may have occurred,” the issues in this case involved legislative evolution that modified and established a de facto definition of the constitutionally-mandated “quality education.” Regarding the local control argument Edgar spoke to, Justice Wharton stated that “[P]laintiffs only plead for adequate educational funding resources to exercise some degree of ‘local control.’”