Seventeen Illinois school districts have banded together to sue Governor Bruce Rauner, the State of Illinois, and the Illinois State Board of Education for failing to fund public education adequately in accord with the state constitution. The state expects all students to meet its learning standards but not provide the funding to support what is expected. This is not equality of educational opportunity.

Media Contact: Allison Ordman

Illinois School Districts File Lawsuit to Hold State Accountable to Adequately Fund State Learning Standards
Seventeen districts with low-wealth property tax bases and high number of low-income students unite
to demand state not leave their students behind

SPRINGFIELD – Today 17 Illinois school districts stood up for students when they filed an unprecedented lawsuit to hold accountable the State, Governor Bruce Rauner and the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to carry out their constitutional duty of adequately funding a “high quality education” for all students. The superintendents of four plaintiff districts discussed the lawsuit today at a press conference at the state’s Capitol building: Dan Cox (Staunton CUSD #6), Jill Griffin (Bethalto CUSD #8), Art Ryan (Cahokia CUSD #187) and Brad Skertich (Southwestern CUSD #9). The lawsuit was filed in the Circuit Court of St. Clair County.

The plaintiffs argue the State first must use an evidence-based methodology to calculate the per-pupil extra financial aid necessary for low property wealth districts to meet the Illinois Learning Standards, and second must fund each district at that calculated level. The Illinois Constitution provides basis for this case in Article X, Section 1, which requires that Illinois “shall provide for an efficient system of high quality education.”

Under the current model, students are held accountable to meet the Illinois Learning Standards – standards that school districts across Illinois have been forced to fund on their own without additional state funding to cover those mandates.

“The 17 districts that have joined this case so far did so because we are all at a breaking point. We as school administrators and superintendents have been forced to increase class sizes, lay off qualified teachers and eviscerate social services for students, all because the State is not living up to its constitutional obligation to adequately fund the Learning Standards it mandates,” said Dr. David Lett, Superintendent of Pana CUSD #8. “Each district has gone through its budget line by line to re-allocate dollars more efficiently. But we won’t stand to see our students lose out any longer simply because of where they live.”

This lawsuit stands out from previous cases in that the State now has defined the standards of a “high quality” education and has required districts to meet those standards.

Participants in the suit include districts from these counties: St. Clair, Bond, Christian, Clinton, Fayette, Jersey, Macoupin, Madison, Montgomery and Peoria (the full list of districts is available at the end of this release). All 17 plaintiff districts spend under the state average on instructional and operating cost per pupil, primarily because their regions have less property wealth to tax. These districts comprise about 25,000 students, half of whom qualify as low-income.

In 1997, ISBE adopted the Illinois Learning Standards to hold schools (teachers, administrators, students) accountable to achieve key benchmarks. These standards were aligned with the federal Common Core standards in 2010, and after a three-year grace period, each district was “expected to fully implement curricula that meet the new standards during the 2013-14 school year” without any additional State aid.

Over time the standards increased in rigor, and meeting them required new resources such as textbooks, curriculum and professional development, for which the State provides no assistance.

Though all plaintiff districts support the establishment of and accountability for rigorous student standards, their superintendents have learned firsthand that meeting these standards consistently comes at a cost – a cost of eliminating critical teaching positions, counselors and other programs essential to student learning – because the State does not fund these mandates.

ISBE has adopted and held all school districts accountable to meet the Learning Standards, disregarding the districts that lack sufficient local finances to cover the costs of special programs, curriculum and professional development that the Learning Standards inherently require.

If the plaintiffs win in court, the State would be required to fulfill its constitutional obligation to adequately fund each district for the Learning Standards it mandates.

Each year, the General Assembly establishes a “Foundation Level” per-pupil cost (as of now $6,119), and if any district lacks the local resources to meet that level, the State is obligated to make up the difference. Lawmakers have not adjusted this “Foundation Level” in over eight years, and the level does not relate to the Illinois Learning Standards in any measurable way.

In fact, in recent years the General Assembly has failed to fully appropriate the “Foundation Level,” so instead it has prorated the funds. Under proration, the State decreases its aid to each district in a proportional manner. However, proration has a disproportionate impact on districts that have lower property wealth because those districts rely more heavily on state aid.

The State also evaluates districts based on their students’ scores on the Partnership for Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam, an exam that must align with the Learning Standards. The 17 plaintiff districts’ PARCC scores remain lower than wealthier school districts. This increasing disparity has made it even harder for students in the lower property wealth districts to compete against students from higher property wealth districts for admission at Illinois public universities and colleges.

Due to this disparity, some families have elected to move to areas with higher-performing schools or to districts that have higher state-assigned grades. This shift has further reduced the pool of local resources available to the already under-funded school districts.

The Board of each plaintiff district voted to join the suit. The 17 plaintiff districts are listed here, as well as the 14 superintendents who attended the press conference.

Bethalto CUSD #8 (Superintendent Dr. Jill Griffin)
Bond County CUSD #2 (Superintendent Wes Olson)
Bunker Hill CUSD #8 (Superintendent Dr. Victor Buehler)
Cahokia CUSD #187 (Superintendent Art Ryan)
Carlinville CUSD #1 (Superintendent Mike Kelly)
Gillespie CUSD #7
Grant CCSD #110
Illinois Valley Central CUSD #321 (Superintendent Chad Allison)
Mt. Olive CUSD #5 (Superintendent Patrick Murphy)
Mulberry Grove CUSD #1 (Superintendent Brad Turner)
Nokomis CUSD #22 (Superintendent Scott Doerr)
Pana CUSD #8 (Superintendent Dr. Dave Lett)
Southwestern CUSD #9 (Superintendent Brad Skertich)
Staunton CUSD #6 (Superintendent Dan Cox)
Taylorville CUSD #3 (Superintendent Gregg Fuerstenau)
Vandalia CUSD #203 (Superintendent Rich Well)
Wood River Hartford #15

The firm representing the plaintiffs is Despres, Schwartz & Geoghegan, Ltd.