Illinois Lawmakers Weigh Whether To Declare Education A ‘Fundamental Right’

In this Jan. 27, 2016 photo, Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, looks on as Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner delivers his State of the State address. CREDIT: SETH PERLMAN, AP
In this Jan. 27, 2016 photo, Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, looks on as Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner delivers his State of the State address. CREDIT: SETH PERLMAN, AP

Illinois could change its state constitution to declare education a “fundamental right” instead of a “primary responsibility,” which means that it would be the duty of the state to provide adequate funding for schools rather than simply a goal, according to local NPR affiliate WUIS.

This amendment to the state constitution would require the state to fund 51 percent of the cost of education. If the amendment passes the state legislature, it would then need 60 percent of voters to vote in favor of the amendment in November. Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D), who proposed the education amendment, also pushed a similar amendment in 1992, according to the local television station WRSP. It didn’t have enough votes to pass back then.

Republicans on the House education panel have questioned whether the amendment is feasible, arguing that there needs to be more flexibility in the state budget.

But the amendment would be an important win for those trying to close funding gaps between Illinois school districts. Property taxes currently account for most of public school funding, with 34 percent coming from the state, according to the Associated Press.

NPR’s recent analysis of gaps in spending between school districts used Illinois as its first example — Chicago Ridge School District received $9,794 in per-pupil spending in 2013 compared to Rondout School, located in the Chicago’s affluent suburbs, which received $28,639 in per-pupil spending during the same year. These glaring differences can be attributed to the reliance on property taxes for school funding, NPR reported, since Roundout School’s neighborhood has many thriving businesses that contribute to local taxes, which in turn allow for higher quality schools. Chicago Public Schools, which enrolls 392,285 students, is going through a major budget crisis.

If the proposed amendment passes, however, things could get complicated when the state tries to enforce it since there are plenty of ongoing lawsuits relating to states’ education funding systems and what states’ constitutions require for education funding. Some of those ongoing arguments are over how to allocate a certain sum of money to schools and whether states’ allocations are equitable.

New York is a key example of how complicated a fight over education funding and the state constitution can get. The Campaign for Fiscal Equity has been engaged in a long legal battle over whether the state provides “sound basic education” — which, according to a New York Court Appeals decision, means a high school education that prepares students for college and a career and allows them to “function productively as civil participants.” In 2001, a New York Supreme Court Justice declared the state’s school funding system unconstitutional, and after bouncing back and forth in the courts for a couple years, in 2003, the New York State Court of Appeals ordered the state to make serious changes in how it funds education.

The state failed to meet the deadline, and there were more delays and more appeals from the governor until finally, in 2006, the 2003 decision was reaffirmed. At that point, the Court of Appeals ordered the state to allocate at least $2 billion more to public schools in New York City, but otherwise said the courts could not dictate exactly how money is spent. But the economic crisis undid a lot of the state’s work in this area. Schools in disadvantaged communities, including major cities and rural areas of Upstate New York, saw major cuts to their school budgets. Advocates for more equitable funding argued that the funding was not distributed effectively by the state. This year, the Alliance for Quality Education is still arguing that more education funding is needed to ensure students have a “sound basic education.”

As school districts across the country struggle with budget shortfalls, there are plenty of other examples of these type of cases.

In Texas, 600 school districts argue the state legislature hasn’t fulfilled its constitutional duty to fund schools, and that case has been going on for years. In Connecticut, an advocacy group says the school funding system is failing students and that the state isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation. And school vouchers became an educational equity issue in Nevada, where District Court Judge James Wilson ruled that the state’s school voucher law violates parts of the state’s constitution and said it would divert money away from public schools.