The Illinois Supreme Court has agreed to hear Carr and Newell vs. Koch State Board of Education, a case challenging Illinois’ public education funding mechanism.
The plaintiffs challenged the use of local tax assessments as a key variable in provisioning state education payments to school districts. While the state currently sets a minimum level of target funding for each student known as the “foundation level”, individual school districts must tax at or above a set minimum in order to qualify for financial assistance from the state. In order to do so, poorer districts, because of their lower property values, must tax at a much higher rate than wealthier districts. In addition, wealthier districts raise funds much in excess of the foundation level from their property taxes alone, and on top of that receive a minimum grant from the state.
Under the Illinois constitution, education is not a fundamental right, but is defined as a “fundamental goal.” The Illinois constitution guarantees only “some measure of equality in educational funding and opportunity.”
The plaintiffs in Carr and Newell argue that the education finance scheme violates the equal protection clause of the Illinois constitution by forcing property owners in districts with low property values to pay a higher property tax rate than those in districts with higher property values. They argue that since the state is more involved than ever in setting standards for public education, that the financing of schools can no longer be such a preponderantly local responsibility.
The Illinois Supreme Court in a 1996 decision chose to avoid the issue of school financing and held that the differential caused by the disparity in property values did not result in a denial of the equal protection clause of the Illinois constitution. In so doing, they were guided by a decision of the United States Supreme Court that held that there is no fundamental right to an education.
Perhaps the landscape has changed since these earlier decisions. Certainly, this issue will have an effect on every citizen and taxpayer of Illinois.