All last school year, nearly every marquee outside Chicago’s public schools was decorated with the slogan: 20% for 20%.
It was schools chief Forrest Claypool’s logic that because Chicago serves 20 percent of the state’s kids, it should get 20 percent of state education money. For months, he brought up this argument nearly every time he was in front of a microphone, even showing up at a small parent meeting at a North Side grammar school to make his case.
“The State of Illinois can decide to fund this or that or whatever the hell they want,” he said. “But what they can’t do is provide 20 percent less for poor minority kids in one part of the state. They can’t do that!”
But behind the scenes of this very public campaign, Claypool told WBEZ, he was also building a legal case against the state for what he saw as discrimination against poor students of color in Chicago.
Today, the Chicago Board of Education is paying the law firm, Jenner & Block, for its work on a plan to sue the State of Illinois over how public schools are funded. Claypool and CPS general counsel, Ronald Marmer, both used to work for Jenner & Block and, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, Marmer is still getting severance payments from the firm. Jenner & Block is also the firm hired by the Chicago Urban League to sue the state in 2008 over the same issue: how money is distributed to schools.
Claypool says that the district’s plan for a lawsuit is now “on ice” because the state came through with a budget for schools.
The saga that played out over school funding started last fall. But it wasn’t until January that the district got serious about a suit. Records show the law firm billed CPS for work done March 3 through June 30.
“We obviously became increasingly frustrated when the stalemate in Springfield went on and on,” Claypool said. “We knew that we had to be in a position if we were moving ahead on budgets that had devastating cuts to classrooms, we wanted to be in court the very next day filing an injunction against the state.”
Claypool said the district “literally had our finger on the button” ready to sue up until the final days of the legislative session, but still saw a “glimmer of hope” that lawmakers would come to a compromise.
“It’s a very serious thing to sue the state of Illinois,” he noted.
Others have tried to sue the state over school funding and failed, largely because the language in the state’s constitution is too weak to compel the state to pay more for public schools. Other states, like New York, have been ordered by the courts to change the way they fund public schools, but they have different constitutional language.
In April, House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) did propose a constitutional amendment that would have changed the language around education funding. At the time, Madigan was asked if the change could lead to lawsuits.
“I would expect going forward that there would be litigation on this question,” Madigan said at the time. “I have no idea what they would do.”
That amendment passed out of committee, but was never called on the House floor.
On June 30, state lawmakers passed a stopgap spending plan, which included an additional $300 million dollars for CPS this year. And with that, Claypool dropped his plan to sue.
“We had the backup if we had to protect our kids through the courts if necessary, and we’re just grateful that we didn’t have to go that route,” he said.
Claypool admits the stop-gap deal is not a permanent solution. Chicago schools are still facing budget cuts and there is still no change to how the state distributes money to schools.
A panel of lawmakers will study the issue and public hearings are scheduled to start next month.
Ralph Martire is with the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. He says it’s wise of Claypool to take the legislative route, not the legal one.
“Let’s say you win a lawsuit. That’ll take five years. Three years at best,” he noted. “Now the General Assembly has to pass new laws at that juncture. Why not just start with the legislative process and get it done? Because every two or three years that we wait in Illinois, we lose another generation of kids and that’s really not okay.”
This article has been updated to include a link to related Chicago Sun-Times reporting.
Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. You can follow her @WBEZeducation.