Updated at 4:40 p.m.
A nine-year court battle over Illinois' school funding system ended Wednesday with a unanimous vote by the state Board of Education to approve a settlement agreement.
The tentative agreement requires the board to devise a new way to distribute money when state funding falls short, but does not fundamentally change Illinois’ school funding system.
State Board Chairman James Meeks said in a statement that the suit “addresses one of the many symptoms caused by the state’s education funding system that is failing Illinois’ students.”
The 2008 suit was filed by several Urban League chapters and led by the Chicago Urban League.
“It’s not everything that we wanted when we started out 9 years ago, but it does recognize the fact that poorer districts, that are most likely going to be highly minority districts, get hurt when full appropriations are not made on the education budget,” said Shari Runner, president of the Chicago Urban League.
Runner pointed out the agreement essentially ends a much-maligned practice used by the state in recent years, known as proration. Under this practice, the board makes across-the-board funding cuts to schools when there isn’t enough state money to meet the required payments to districts.
Under Wednesday’s settlement, the state Board of Education agrees to distribute money differently when there’s a funding shortfall. Proration is most harmful to low-income districts, which often have a higher percentage of minority students, that rely more heavily on state aid.
The state board denied wrongdoing in this lawsuit, but said in a press release that the parties agreed to settle to avoid the burden, costs, and distraction of continued litigation. The governor’s office also issued a statement that said they agree the practice of proration has hurt districts serving the most vulnerable students.
The statement went on to point out that the governor and the legislature fully funded general state aid last year, “thus ending the practice of proration for the first time since 2009.”
“Since becoming Governor, Illinois has increased PK-12 funding by $700 million, and the Governor recommended an additional $250 million in funding for (next year), including fully funding both (general state aid) and transportation,” said spokeswoman Eleni Demertzis.
The Urban League lawsuit was filed in 2008 and sought to change the state’s entire school funding system. Within a year, the court dismissed four of the five counts, including ones that challenged the constitutionality of the formula for distributing school money.
Meeks said the state remains focused on a long-term funding solution.
“ISBE remains hopeful that the General Assembly will enact funding reform during this legislative session to guarantee that no students ever have to settle for less than they deserve,” he said in a statement.
Lisa Scruggs, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said they were “thrilled with the result.”
“There’s no question that when we started this, we went into this with the thinking we would proceed as expeditiously as we could,” Scruggs said. “But we also knew litigation is unpredictable.”
Many thought their case would be tossed out right away, Scruggs said.
“There had been no case prior to this that had been able to advance past the initial claim,” she added.
Within a year, the courts did toss out four of the five claims made in the lawsuit, but the plaintiffs were allowed to pursue a claim filed under the Illinois Civil Rights Act.
The settlement approved Wednesday also means the plaintiffs agree to not appeal the rulings on the other four counts.
Jesse Ruiz was the chairman of the state board in 2008 when the lawsuit was filed. He said he was glad the suit was settled, but that the problems with school funding still persist.
“It’s going to take principled and courageous political leadership to solve this long, long festering problem of inadequate and inequitable education funding in Illinois and I implore our Governor and all leaders in our state to come together on this issue,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz said the courts are obviously not the “most expedient”, noting school funding reform will require a “political solution.”
While the settlement agreement approved Wednesday is rather narrow, Scruggs said the nearly nine-year long litigation helped to make more people aware of how Illinois currently pays for its public schools.
“While the rest of the world certainly was not privy to what was happening with the litigation, we were given unprecedented access to the data and the budgeting process,” Scruggs said. “Even though it took us quite some time to get to this point, we think along the way, we were able to elevate the conversation, bring people to consensus around the fact that our school funding system is broken and it needs to be fixed. That’s something people weren’t saying nine years ago.”