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Momentum Builds for School-Finance Lawsuit in Illinois

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A lawsuit challenging Illinois's school-funding system would be welcome, key lawmakers said last week, because it could help heighten the awareness of their colleagues and the general public toward the problem of wide spending disparities among school districts.

Nearly 300 of the state's 950 school districts have already expressed interest in a proposed challenge to the system, and close to 100 have agreed to send representatives to an organizational meeting next month, according to leaders of the finance-reform movement.

Advocates of major changes in the school-finance system have taken heart from recent rulings in Kentucky and Texas, where state courts have struck down existing finance systems as inequitable.

At the extreme end, some school districts in Illinois spend $10,000 more per pupil than do others in the state, experts said. But a truer measure of the problem, they suggested, is the fact that 133 districts spend more than $5,000 per student, while 186 spend less than $3,000.

The gap between the lowest- and highest-spending districts has been steadily increasing in recent years, experts said, largely due to the in4creasing role of local property taxes in funding education.

Already before the legislature is one bill--with another expected shortly--to cap property-tax rates for schools throughout the state, in an effort to prevent the gap from increasing further.

Lawmakers Reluctant

Reform backers maintain that the current plans would do little to address the fundamental need, which is to increase funding for low-spending districts. But sponsors said their colleagues have been reluctant to deal with even their more limited remedy, primarily because large infusions of new state money would be required to prevent budget cuts in the higher-spending districts.

"No matter how we do this, it's going to take substantial state funding," said Senator John W. Maitland, the Republican sponsor of a pending bill that would revamp the school-aid formula and establish a uniform property-tax rate throughout the state.

Representative Gene L. Hoffman, an author of the current school-funding structure and a proponent of a new system of voluntary tax-rate caps, said a law it could help reduce the legislature's aversion to the issue.

"If we have a well-drawn lawsuit that is able to crystallize the issues so the public can understand them, we have a much better chance," he said.

Senator Maitland added, "I would rather that the General Assembly do it than have the courts say, 'This what it is going to be."'

The looming prospect of a lawsuit "is helping my colleagues and school people realize that we have to hit this thing head on," he said. ''I think if a lawsuit is filed it will help as well."

Both lawmakers said chances for passage of a significant finance-reform measure during the 1990 legislative session were slim, partly because it is an election year.

'Declaration of Galesburg'

James Nowlan, professor of public policy at Knox College in Galesburg and a leader of the movement to mount a legal challenge to the finance system, agreed that lawmakers were unlikely to address the issue soon.

"I can't see them mustering the coordination and the will to do much this year," he said.

Mr. Nowlan and G. Alan Hickrod, professor of school administration at Illinois State University in Normal, have formed the Coalition for Educational Rights Under the Constitution to solicit school districts willing to participate in a suit.

The group will hold an organizational meeting in January to determine how to proceed and how to fund the effort, Mr. Nowlan said.

Mr. Nowlan is the founder of Voice of the Prairie, an advocacy group for rural concerns. The organization met in October and approved the ''Declaration of Galesburg," a statement of its intent to challenge school-funding inequities.

Arguing that per-pupil spending has increasingly become "a function of the wealth of a school district," the declaration said, "We have also noted with increasing dissatisfaction the enormous inequalities in property-tax bases between school districts and the great inequalities in tax burdens between school districts."

"Last, but far from least," it continued, "we have recently noted with alarm and concern the totally unacceptable differences in test-score results between school districts."

The Illinois Farm Bureau, a long-time advocate of school-finance reform, voted last week to explore lending legal and financial support to a challenge to the current system.

Finance reform has also become a "top priority" of Superintendent of Education Robert Leininger, who has been raising the issue at meetings throughout the state.

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