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How CPS’ Lawsuit Against Rauner Could Play Out

The Chicago Board of Education is desperately seeking ways to close its latest budget gap, including turning to the courts. 

CPS’ first move comes Wednesday, when the board will vote to cut more than $100 million from its budget to fill a $215 million hole. Here’s an explainer on how CPS got to this point, what the district’s options are and what are the consequences. 

The back story 

That gap was created when Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed pension relief from the state that CPS had been counting on. Rauner said that pension money was contingent on passing broader state pension reform, which has yet to happen.

That caused district officials to turn to the courts for pension relief. 

“We held off for a long time thinking there was a political or legislative solution,” said CPS CEO Forrest Claypool. “The governor’s veto changed all that and put us right back to square one. So this is what courts are for, to enforce the law when politicians fail and when the politicians flout the law.”

The state’s policy of contributing little toward the cost of teacher pensions in Chicago is at the center of a lawsuit filed last week by the school system against Rauner and the state. 

The school board, along with five families, argue the state is engaging in racial discrimination because when all of the money the state spends on education is added up -- including teacher pension payments -- CPS, which mostly serves black and brown students, gets less than other districts. 

CPS claims that the state spends 74 cents to educate Chicago children for every dollar it spends outside Chicago.

It’s a case unlike others here and around the country that have fought to fix disparities in school funding in that it takes aim at a narrow piece of the school funding pie.

“We’re not trying to fix the state’s overall inadequacy of funding issue through the courts,” Claypool said. “What we’re arguing is whether the state gives out a $1 or a trillion dollars, they cannot distribute it in a racially discriminatory manner.”

At the heart of the district’s math is how the state pays for teacher pensions. Chicago Public Schools is the only district in the state that makes its own pension payments. As the state’s pension payments balloon, the gap between education money spent in the rest of the state and Chicago grows.

Winning the battle, losing the war? 

But going after a narrow piece of the way schools are funded could also have unintended consequences, said Michael Griffith, a consultant with the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit that analyzes education policy.

“This is one of those things you can win the battle but lose the war,” Griffith said. “The court could rule in favor. You could get more of the pension money, but it just comes from other areas of the budget and they’ve met their mandate.”

Griffith said lawsuits challenging public school funding systems usually seek more money, but that doesn’t always pan out.

“A victory for Chicago might just come at the cost for other districts,” Griffith said. “Because what the state will say if they’re forced to do it is, ‘Look we don’t have any additional money. We just have to move the current amount of money we have around and target more toward Chicago.’ Which is good for Chicago, but that money is going to come out of other people’s pockets.”

In the case of the CPS lawsuit, a favorable ruling also could push lawmakers to do something its leaders have discussed in the past: make all districts pay for their teacher pensions, just as Chicago does now. 

That could be a remedy, Claypool admitted, but he said the district is simply asking the courts for emergency relief. He said he is hoping the narrow nature of the suit will mean a quick resolution.

“There’s a lot at stake here -- there’s a lot at risk -- but we’re running out of time,” Claypool said.

Lawsuit deja vu? 

The district’s lawsuit was filed two days before the Illinois State Board of Education reached a settlement over a different lawsuit filed in 2008. 

That suit -- brought on by several local chapters of the Urban League -- went after the entire school funding scheme. But the court dismissed four of the five counts within a year.

The nearly nine-year-old court battle will come to an end Wednesday when the state board votes on the settlement agreement. The tentative agreement appears to be a small victory. In it, ISBE agrees to distribute money differently -- and hopefully more fairly -- when it is unable to make full payments to school districts. 

State Sen. Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) applauded the settlement, calling it a “small, but significant” victory in the decades-long battle to change how Illinois pays for its public schools. 

“Would it have been nice to have the court come in and say, ‘Legislature and Governor, you must take this definitive action’? Of course, that would’ve been remarkable,” Manar said. 

Manar has introduced three bills during the last three years to overhaul how the state pays for public schools. None have made it to the governor’s desk. 

“I think the approach that has been employed by Chicago Public Schools is a sound approach,” he said. “You know, maybe, maybe, the ask of the court isn’t: ‘Bring the entire system down.’ That’s a pretty big lift for any court. But maybe the ask of any court in this case and future cases is: ‘Let’s pick apart pieces of severe inequity within the system and use that process and that goal to get at the larger inequities that exist today.’ ” 

For parents in Chicago, like Meg Mortensen, it’s time for a solution. Mortensen has three children at Agassiz Elementary in Lakeview and has been on the local school council for five years. 

“Every year there’s a lot of hope that it’s going to get better and after being on (the council) for five years, the hope is kind of gone that it’s not going to get better unless there’s a lot of sacrifices made by every party,” Mortensen said.

Last week, the Agassiz local school council sent a letter to not just Claypool and Rauner, but also Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the leaders of the Illinois General Assembly and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. 

“Everybody is responsible,” Mortensen said. “Everyone has to make concessions. Everybody has to make compromises, and they have to stop playing games with each other.”

Becky Vevea covers education for WBEZ. You can follow her at @WBEZeducation.

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