After two similar sales tax proposals benefiting schools failed in Madison and St. Clair Counties, several local school districts are suing the state for failing to provide the funding necessary to achieve the more rigorous and expensive learning standards required in Illinois.

The school districts are represented by Despres, Schwartz & Geoghegan, Ltd., in Chicago and the Law Offices of Thomas E. Kennedy, III, L.C., in St. Louis.

The suit was filed Wednesday by 17 school districts against Gov. Bruce Rauner, Illinois State Board of Education and the State of Illinois.

The districts are located in St. Clair, Bond, Christian, Fayette, Jersey, Macoupin, Madison, Montgomery and Peoria Counties.

The Madison and St. Clair County school districts suing the state include Wood River-Hartford School District Number 15, Bethalto Community Unit School District Number 8 and Cahokia Unit School District Number 187.

The three-count complaint alleges the defendants adopted more rigorous and expensive learning standards to be universally achieved by every school in the state but have failed to provide adequate funding for districts with a higher concentration of low-income students.

Furthermore, they say state law bars them from going into debt in order to achieve the learning standards.

Simply put, they claim they must meet tougher requirements with less money and cannot go into debt while doing it.

They also allege that in every plaintiff  district, test scores have dropped dramatically due to financial aid erosion.

Specifically, Cahokia is the largest plaintiff district with 3,490 students but has the highest percentage of low-income students at 73.7 percent. As a result, Cahokia alleges it has the lowest test scores of the plaintiff districts. Test scores dropped from 69.0 percent passing the ISAT test in 2011-12 to just 5.3 percent passing the PARCC test in 2015-16.

Illinois Secretary of Education Dr. Beth Purvis said Gov. Rauner has actually increased funding and is working to improve the model for determining how much funding districts receive.

“Illinois school districts are receiving the highest level of funding ever under Governor Rauner, who has increased school funding by $700 million since taking office,” Purvis stated. “The Governor also created a bipartisan school funding commission to improve the formula, which has recommended changes that will create an equitable school funding formula that will better meet the needs of each students within every school district in our state. The Governor never stops working to increase funding for our students and hopes school districts across Illinois will work with him and members of the General Assembly on this endeavor.”

In count I, the districts seek to enforce Article X, Section 1 of the Illinois Constitution by requiring the defendants to use an evidence-based methodology to calculate the resources necessary for the districts to accomplish the Illinois Learning Standards and to pay to the districts the additional funds required.

The plaintiffs say the Illinois Learning Standards adopted in 1997 are more rigorous and costly and provided the knowledge and specific skills all students in the districts must be able to demonstrate.

“Because of limited revenues from the property tax, all the plaintiffs in this action have local resources per pupil well below the statewide average.

In count II, the districts argue that the Learning Standards preclude any local control.

“There is no longer a rational basis for the State’s extreme disparities in funding public education,” the complaint states.

In count III, the districts argue that it is “arbitrary and capricious” to assess students under the Learning Standards when the schools are not equally nor adequately funded.

“In such manner, the State defendants exclude students in the plaintiff districts from the same access that students in wealthier districts have to the State’s public institutions of higher education,” the complaint states.

The districts allege that meeting the requirements set by the Illinois Learning Standards is beyond the financial means available from state and local resources, particularly from local property tax revenue.

Funding

The districts allege the combined state and local revenue per pupil is below the average of all districts in Illinois, and they are spending “significantly” under the state average of $7,712 per student for instructional expenses and $12,821 for operating expenses including instruction.

In fact, the districts claim the state financial aid has actually dropped since fiscal year 2011 while costs of the Learning Standards have increased since 2010 when the state aligned the requirements with the Common Core State Standards.

The districts explain that regular General State Aid, or GSA, is supposed to provide a minimum amount of funding per pupil called the Foundation Level.

The supplemental GSA grant is based on the number and concentration of low-income students in the district.

The districts claim the state is supposed to provide funding to help districts meet the Foundation Level, which was last adjusted eight years ago.

“Without change for eight years, the Foundation Level, adjusted for inflation, has dropped by $920 per student, or by 15 percent of its original value,” the complaint states.

The General Assembly has failed to appropriate even the nominal amount of the Foundation Level in recent years and have adopted a system of “proration,” cutting GSA to all districts equally regardless of wealth, the plaintiffs allege.

“Such proration has had a disparate impact on the plaintiff districts and other districts that have low levels of property wealth,” the districts allege. “These districts are more dependent than affluent districts on receiving State aid to meet the Illinois Learning Standards.”

As a result, the districts claim they have had to scale back or eliminate courses including art, music and vocational education.

Based on losses in state revenue and increases in local revenue, the districts claim they have lost an average of $295 per pupil from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2015.

During that same time, they claim several affluent districts gained an average of $2,665 per pupil in combined state and local revenue per pupil.

Further, while these low-income districts lost money from the state, they’ve had to make up the difference by taxing the families within their districts who are already struggling financially in order to try making up the difference through local funding.

The districts claim the difference in test results and funding has made it difficult for them to prevent students from leaving. As more students leave, the districts lose local resources available to fund the Illinois Learning Standards and further increases the disparity with wealthy districts.

Regardless of the funding issues, they allege the state still believes the school districts should not have control over what students must learn or the skills they must achieve.

Instead, they claim the defendants argue that local control is unfair to the students because “part of being fair is to maintain the same high standards for all students, wherever they may live.”

Schools are then graded by the state based on the percentage of students who meet or exceed expectations in the Partnership for Assessment for Readiness for College and Careers examinations in elementary schools.

While the ISBE holds that students cannot be held accountable for achieving the Learning Standards if they do not have the opportunities needed to do so, the districts claim they are “being held accountable for Learning Standards that the districts cannot fund and that the State defendants fail to fund.”

Evidence-based funding model

In their complaint, the districts seek an evidence-based funding model to “identify educational practices and structures, based on academic research, that could improve student achievement in accordance with the Illinois Learning Standards as well as to identify the costs of adopting those practices and structures.”

They also argue that an evidence-based model would allow the defendants to calculate an “adequacy” target for each district that takes student characteristics into account.

The state currently has no evidence-based model to determine additional costs to districts with more low-income students.

“In the absence of such an appropriate methodology tied to the Illinois Learning Standards, the State defendants currently have no basis or way to determine specific cost to the plaintiff districts to meet or make reasonable progress for meeting the Illinois Learning Standards mandated by state law,” the complaint states.

Superintendents for Madison and St. Clair County school districts listed in the lawsuit could not be reached for comment.

The plaintiff districts also include Grant Central Consolidated School District Number 110, Pana Community Unit School District Number 8, Bond County Community Unit School District Number 2, Bunker Hill Community Unit School District Number 8, Gillespie Community Unit School District Number7, Illinois Valley Central Community Unit School District Number 321, Mt. Olive Community Unit School District Number 5, Mulberry Grove Community Unit School District Number 1, Nokomis Community Unit School District Number 22,Southwestern Community Unit School District Number 9, Staunton Community Unit School District Number 6, Vandalia Community Unit School District Number 203,Carlinville Community Unit School District Number 1 and Taylorville Community Unit School District Number 3. 

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