Illinois Supreme Court Denies Taxpayer Standing in Constitutional Challenge to School Funding Law

The Illinois state educational funding statute survived a constitutional challenge last week when the Illinois Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion by Justice Robert R. Thomas, affirmed an Appellate Court decision dismissing Carr v. Koch for lack of standing. Our pre-argument preview of Carr, which includes a detailed description of the facts and lower court rulings, is here. Our report on the oral argument is here.

The Illinois School Code conditions state aid on a sliding scale, depending on whether the local school district can raise relatively little, nearly all, or more than all of the basic “Foundation Level” of funding calculated by the state. The plaintiffs, property owners in three school districts scattered around the state, challenged the statute under the equal protection clause of the Illinois constitution. The plaintiffs’ theory was that the state statute, in combination with the Illinois Learning Standards promulgated by the Illinois State Board of Education, had a coercive effect on school districts with lower property values, causing them to tax their property owners more heavily than districts with higher property values. The Illinois Supreme Court had already upheld the state system a number of years earlier in Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar, but the plaintiffs argued that in the years since Edgar, the local school districts had lost control over core education functions as a result of the Illinois Learning Standards. The Circuit Court dismissed, finding that Edgar nevertheless still controlled, and in the alternative, that the plaintiffs lacked standing, since tax rates were a matter of local decision-making not traceable to the state officials named in the suit. The Appellate Court affirmed, agreeing that the taxpayer plaintiffs lacked standing and pointing out that if the court indeed struck down the statute, the court’s decree not only wouldn’t give the plaintiffs the relief they wanted (lower taxes); it would probably lead to higher tax rates.

The Supreme Court affirmed. The School Code was not a taxing statute, the Court pointed out; it simply determined the level of state aid. School districts were not required to impose the tax rate presumed by the statute, and there was no penalty if they didn’t.   With respect to the plaintiffs’ theory that the Illinois Learning Standards tended to coerce poorer school districts into increasing taxes, the Court pointed out that nowhere in the state statutes is general state aid tied to the performance of a district’s students with respect to the ILS. Because the plaintiffs’ alleged injury was not a direct result of the School Code’s funding provisions, or fairly traceable to any of the defendants’ actions in connection with the statute, the plaintiffs lacked standing to proceed.

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