James R. Moore Jr.
James R. Moore Jr.

An alliance of Illinois school districts had their constitutional challenge to the state’s school-funding model properly dismissed, an appellate panel ruled last week.

Citing principles of sovereign immunity and stare decisis, a divided 5th District Appellate Court upheld the dismissal of a suit brought by the districts. Those districts contended state funding inequities violate equal protection and “high-quality education” promises in the Illinois Constitution.

Justice James R. Moore Jr. authored the 10-page majority decision, officially published last week, writing that the state and its officers generally can’t be sued and that the Illinois Supreme Court already deemed school funding an issue for the other branches of government.

Though the state adopted new learning standards and a new funding system since the high court ruled in Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar in 1996, the underlying logic remains the same, the Moore wrote.

“While we agree that some of the reasoning in Edgar focused on the lack of measurability of ‘quality,’ the ultimate holding in Edgar was broadly stated, concluding that the determination of whether the [s]tate was fulfilling its duty of providing for a quality education was outside the judicial function,” Moore wrote.

The school districts first filed suit in St. Clair County in 2017. An amended complaint filed in May 2018, months after the state approved the new funding system under the Evidence-Based Funding for Student Success Act. That law broadly retooled the formula used to determine funding for each school, giving priority to underresourced districts when allocating additional resources. It also has explicit funding targets to be reached by 2027.

The plaintiffs claimed Illinois State Board of Education numbers show the state isn’t coming close to meeting those targets, and that such a failure is a violation of Article 10, Section 1 of the Illinois Constitution, which says the state “shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services.”

They also alleged a violation of equal protection under Article 1, Section 2, citing disparities between school districts in Illinois that are as high as $10,000 to $15,000 per pupil. They claim the state’s justification for differing funding rates — that local school districts retain control — are no longer acceptable since the state adopted broad learning standards.

The suit named then-Gov. Bruce Rauner and the state as defendants. Gov. J.B. Pritzker was substituted as a defendant as a matter of law.

State lawyers filed a motion to dismiss based on sovereign immunity, and also argued that the plaintiffs could not state a cause of action and the governor could not effectuate the relief they sought. In October 2018, 20th Judicial Circuit Associate Judge Julie K. Katz granted the motion and dismissed the claims with prejudice.

On appeal, Moore, joined by Justice Thomas M. Welch, wrote the plaintiffs didn’t offer any reason why the state itself should be a defendant. Sovereign immunity mostly protects the state from lawsuits outside the Court of Claims, they noted, and the districts “cite no authority and make no argument as to why” there should be an exception in this case.

As for the governor, they looked to the substance of the claims. They noted that the holding in the Edgar decision was reaffirmed in 1999 in Lewis v. Spagnolo. They wrote that while the plaintiffs claim those are not applicable due to new learning standards and a new funding law, the plaintiffs are still asking for something the appellate court can’t deliver: a decision overturning Edgar based on the new definition of “quality” gleaned from the funding law and learning standards.

“Recently, the Illinois Supreme Court reiterated the long-standing principle that our circuit and appellate courts are bound to apply supreme court precedent to the facts of the case before them, ‘[r]egardless of the impact of any societal evolution that may have occurred’ since the decision was made,” Moore wrote, citing the high court’s 2019 decision in Yakich v. Aulds, in which a trial judge struck down an education expenses provision in the Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act.

When the high court declares the law on a particular point, only those justices can modify or overrule such a declaration.

“Bearing this in mind, we decline to disturb the holdings in Edgar and Lewis, and find that count I was properly dismissed,” Moore wrote.

As to the equal protection challenge in Count II, the same reasoning that traces back to Edgar and stare decisis still applies, Moore wrote.

“Considering this exact claim, our supreme court held that the State’s system of funding public education is rationally related to the legitimate State goal of promoting local control,” the majority noted. “Accordingly, the court held that the circuit court properly dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims alleging a violation of the equal protection clause based on disparities in educational funding.”

Justice Milton S. Wharton wrote a separate 12-page partial dissent, in which he concurred with the decision to dismiss the state as a defendant, but not the governor.

He wrote that the majority’s application of Edgar was overly broad.

“While our supreme court has stated that case precedents must be applied ‘[r]egardless of the impact of any societal evolution that may have occurred,’ the issues in this case do not focus on ‘societal evolution’; instead, this case involves legislative evolution that has modified and established a de facto definition of the constitutionally mandated ‘quality education,’” Wharton wrote.

Among other things, he noted specifically that the Funding Act has a statement of legislative purpose, which is to ensure all Illinois students have “a meaningful opportunity to learn irrespective of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, or community-income level.” Such changes suggest courts should have more control over school-funding issues now than when Edgar was decided, Wharton wrote.

He also noted it would be “unconscionable” to fail to mention the relationship between incarceration and a lack of education, citing state statistics showing that for fiscal year 2018, only 15.7% of inmates in the state had a high school degree.

“For these reasons, I believe it is imperative that there be some avenue available to underresourced school districts like the plaintiffs to insist on funding that is adequate to serve their students and meet the goals of the Funding Act,” he concluded.

“The trial court’s dismissal of this case was procedurally early in the case. By accepting all well-pleaded facts in the complaint as true and drawing all reasonable inferences from those facts in favor of the plaintiffs, I would reverse the trial court’s order dismissing the equal protection clause issue against the Governor.”

Thomas H. Geoghegan of Despres Schwartz & Geoghegan Ltd., represented the plaintiffs, 22 school districts mostly in central and southern Illinois.

Richard S. Huszagh, an assistant attorney general, represented the state in the case.

Neither side provided comment as of press time.

The case, originally published as a Rule 23 order on April 17, is Cahokia Unit School District No. 187, et al., v. J.B. Pritzker, 2020 IL App (5th) 180542.