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Lawsuit makes school funding a civil rights matter
By Matt Arado | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 8/22/2008 12:08 AM

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Illinois courts refused twice in the 1990s to enter the school-funding debate, saying the matter belonged with state lawmakers, not the judiciary.

The Chicago Urban League, which filed a new school-funding lawsuit against the state this week, believes it can make the courts rethink that position.

The lawsuit characterizes the school-funding question as a civil rights matter, alleging that the current system, which uses property taxes to fund schools, discriminates against low-income minority students, especially blacks and Hispanics.

Using civil rights law should ensure that the courts will hear the case this time around, Urban League Executive Vice President Sharon Jones said.

"Courts have been deciding racial discrimination cases for years," she said, adding that the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 2003 didn't exist during earlier school-funding cases.

The suit names the state and the Illinois State Board of Education. Matt Vanover, spokesman for the state board, declined to comment Thursday, saying the board is still reviewing the suit.

Public schools in Illinois derive the bulk of their funding from local property taxes, which gives "property-rich" districts an advantage over poorer ones. The lawsuit calls this system inherently discriminatory, because many poorer districts serve a high concentration of black and/or Hispanic students.

"There's a history of housing segregation in Illinois that has created a pattern of minorities living together in poorer areas and whites living together in wealthier areas," Jones said.

The suit also claims that the school-funding system violates the state constitution's Uniformity of Taxation provision, the right to equal protection and the right to attend "high-quality" schools. It asks the courts to declare the current funding system unconstitutional and order legislators to create a fairer one.

In the past, the courts have been reluctant to make such a ruling. In 1996, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the dismissal of a school-funding lawsuit, saying that "the process of (school-funding) reform must be undertaken in a legislative forum rather than in the courts." The courts made a similar decision in a later case involving the schools of East St. Louis.

Dawn Clark Netsch, a Northwestern University law professor and former state senator, said that overcoming those two decisions will be tough, but not impossible.

"There are new approaches that can be taken, which is what I believe the Chicago Urban League is trying to do," she said.

Roughly two-thirds of school-funding lawsuits filed since 1989 in the U.S. have been successful, Netsch said.

"It's better, of course, for the elected representatives of the people to bring about this change, but many courts around the country have done it," she said.

The school-funding debate has raged for years in Illinois. Some have suggested that property taxes be supplemented by revenue from a statewide tax, such as an income or sales tax, in order to offset the advantage enjoyed by richer districts.

Suburban school officials would likely object to such a change, which they fear would cause them to lose resources and control.

"Property taxes are reliable, and come directly to us," said Deb Parenti, associate superintendent for finance and operations in Arlington Heights-based Northwest Suburban High School District 214. "The 'tax swap' proposals we've seen so far look like they would cause us to lose resources."

The Urban League filed its lawsuit while some leaders are calling for students in the Chicago Public Schools to skip classes on Sept. 2 - the first day of school in the city - and try to enroll at New Trier High School in Winnetka. State Sen. James Meeks of Chicago's South Side organized the protest to bring attention to disparities in school funding.