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Ill. Court Delivers Ultimate Setback in School Finance Suit

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After six years of challenging the constitutionality of school funding in Illinois, some 70 school districts ran out of legal options this month when the state's high court dismissed their lawsuit.

The legislature, not the courts, should address school funding, the Illinois Supreme Court said in its Oct. 18 ruling. The decision was the districts' ultimate setback.

Their only hope now is that legislators will revamp the state funding formula on their own or back a constitutional amendment to close Illinois' per-pupil-spending discrepancies, which are among the widest in the nation.

"We were disappointed, although not particularly surprised," said Randolph Tinder, the superintendent of the Carlinville school district, which helped sponsor the suit.

In his majority opinion, Justice John Nickels wrote: "While the present school-funding scheme might be thought unwise... these objections must be presented to the General Assembly."

Mr. Tinder, the chairman of the Commission for Education Rights, the group that filed the suit, said that at least the supreme court didn't endorse the current system. The coalition of school districts will probably disband after the courtroom shutout.

State aid made up 47 percent of Illinois school funding in 1977. This year, it was about 32 percent. That decline has exaggerated inequities caused by local property taxes. States like New Jersey and Texas that have inequities similar to those in Illinois have struggled for years in court to try to devise finance systems that would prove constitutional.

Justice Moses Harrison, who partially dissented from the Illinois court's majority, wrote: "The judiciary joins the legislative and executive departments in failing to fulfill our state government's constitutional responsibilities of providing for an efficient system of high-quality public education."

Lawmakers Pledge Changes

It is not clear what impact the decision will have on new efforts to rectify per-pupil-funding gaps between districts. Spending by Illinois districts ranged from $2,617 to $14,525 in 1994, according to state data.

"Once the pressure of the court case is off, [legislators] can turn their back on it," said G. Alan Hickrod, a school finance expert at Illinois State University in Normal.

While other state courts have kept finance cases from going to trial, observers like Mr. Hickrod were surprised that the Illinois court found the issue so easy to decide. The state constitution calls for "an efficient system of high-quality public education."

"They find that the education article is not a mandate to do anything. ... It's a goal statement," said Mr. Hickrod, who has followed the case for several years. "It could heat up momentum to change the constitution."

Republican legislators, who control both houses of the legislature, are promising school-funding reform in their re-election platforms. And Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, wanted change enough to propose an overhaul during the this year's session.

"This should be a legislative matter," Mike Lawrence, the governor's press secretary, said. "We do plan to pursue this issue, but there is no strategy yet."

Mr. Edgar failed this year to get GOP legislators behind his plan to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. It would have raised school money through a new formula that relied less on property taxes.

But local school officials are already looking ahead.

"I'm optimistic about the legislature next year," said Thomas A. Veihman, the superintendent of the Riverton district. "They're talking a pretty big game these days."

The property-poor district, which was part of the suit, spends just $3,760 per student, although it has an above-average property tax rate.

Mr. Veihman would like new funding to add remedial programs, bolster technology, shrink class sizes, and reinstate middle school vocational programs that have been cut because of funding woes.

Said Mr. Veihman: "It's just crazy what some people are paying and what other people are spending."

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