April 20, 2009

A lawsuit filed by the Chicago Urban League against the State of Illinois and the Illinois State Board of Education challenging the state’s funding system survived a key legal hurdle after a Cook County judge denied in part the Defendant’s motion to dismiss, and ruled that the Plaintiffs’ stated a valid claim of discriminatory disparate impact under the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 2003. A Jenner & Block team led by Partner Lisa T. Scruggs is serving as pro bono counsel for the Chicago Urban League in this lawsuit.

The lawsuit challenges the State’s method for raising and distributing education funds to local school districts and the Illinois State Board of Education’s implementation of the system. The Urban League asserts that the State’s public school funding scheme disparately impacts racial and ethnic minority students who attend Majority-Minority Districts.

Although two earlier funding suits never made it past a motion to dismiss, Judge Martin S. Agran found the Illinois Civil Rights Act provided the legal footing to proceed. "This is important and historic because we passed a milestone no other lawsuit in Illinois has been able to pass," Cheryle Jackson, the Urban League's president and chief executive officer, told the Chicago Tribune.  

The Court’s opinion highlights some significant facts from the Firm’s Complaint concerning the State’s school funding system including:

  • “Illinois ranks 49th in the nation in the size of per-pupil funding disparity between its lowest and highest poverty districts.”
  • The per pupil funding in the top five wealthiest districts ranged from $1.2 to $1.8 million, while the per pupil funding ranged from $7,000 to just over $24,000 in the five districts with the lowest property wealth.
  • The “disparity exists despite the fact that low property wealth areas generally pay much higher property tax rates than areas with higher property wealth, and yet they still generate less local funding for their schools.”

“The way the state funds our schools is really disheartening,” said Ms. Scruggs in The New York Times, “but now there is reason for optimism.”

Although four counts of the suit were dismissed, the Court expressly rejected Defendants’ arguments that existing precedent precluded Plaintiffs from seeking relief under the Illinois Civil Rights Act.

In addition to Ms. Scruggs, Partners David J. Bradford, Robert L. Graham, Gail H. Morse, Associates Herbert C. Brown, Brian L. Dougherty, Grace S. Ho, Stephanie Jean-Jacques, Shannon J. Jones, Kyle A. Palazzolo, Sandi J. Toll, and Shyni R. Varghese and paralegal Jessica Merkouris are part of the Firm’s team working this matter. Of Counsel Benjamin K. Miller has also made valuable contributions to the case. News of this victory has been widely reported in the media including numerous articles in the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune as well as The New York Times, ABC-7, and NPR.