A Constitutional Promise Deferred: The Quality Education Clause of the Illinois Constitution

November 30, 2020 5:36 PM | Carson Griffis (Administrator)

By:  John M. Fitzgerald,* Tabet DiVito & Rothstein LLC

Most Illinoisans would be surprised to hear that our State Constitution guarantees “an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services.” (See Illinois Constitution, Art. X, §1.)  Certainly, our State’s system of funding public education is not based on the understanding that such a guarantee exists or ought to be honored, and available data has confirmed for decades that our State’s public school systems are not equipped to offer “high quality” educational services to everyone.

So what to make of the constitutional guarantee?  Nearly a quarter-century ago, the Illinois Supreme Court held that “questions relating to the quality of education are solely for the legislative branch to answer.”  Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar, 174 Ill. 2d 1, 24 (1996).  As the Court explained:

"What constitutes a 'high quality' education, and how it may best be provided, cannot be ascertained by any judicially discoverable or manageable standards. The constitution provides no principled basis for a judicial definition of high quality. It would be a transparent conceit to suggest that whatever standards of quality courts might develop would actually be derived from the constitution in any meaningful sense. Nor is education a subject within the judiciary's field of expertise, such that a judicial role in giving content to the education guarantee might be warranted. Rather, the question of educational quality is inherently one of policy involving philosophical and practical considerations that call for the exercise of legislative and administrative discretion."

Id. at 28-29.  Thus, “the question of whether the educational institutions and services in Illinois are ‘high quality’ is outside the sphere of the judicial function.”  Id. at 32.  In other words, the guarantee embodied in Article 10, section 1 was deemed merely rhetorical and totally unenforceable.  Similarly, the Edgar court rejected an equal protection challenge to the State’s system of public school finance, finding that the system passed rational basis review because it “represent[s] legislative efforts to strike a balance between the competing considerations of educational equality and local control.”  Id. at 39.

Justice Freeman authored a blistering dissent in which he argued that Article X, section 1 “establishes a constitutional floor regarding educational adequacy” and a corresponding responsibility “on the entire state government,” not just the General Assembly.  The judiciary’s role, then, was to “adjudicate the nature of [the] responsibility” imposed by Article X, section 1.  Id. at 56.  “Unfortunately, by holding that the high quality aspect of the education system provision is nonjusticiable, the majority today abandons its responsibility to interpret the Illinois Constitution,” Justice Freeman concluded.  Id. at 62.  In doing so, “[t]he judiciary joins the legislative and executive departments in failing to fulfill our state government’s constitutional responsibility of providing for an efficient system of high quality public education.”  Id.

The Supreme Court is about to revisit Edgar.  The Court recently allowed a petition to leave to appeal from the appellate court’s opinion in Cahokia Unit School District No. 187 v. Pritzker, 2020 IL App (5th) 180542, which raises many of the same issues last addressed by the Court in Edgar.  In Cahokia, a coalition of school districts have raised similar claims challenging the State’s system of financing public education under Article X, section 1 of the Illinois Constitution and the equal protection clause of the Illinois Constitution.  Importantly, the plaintiffs in Cahokia argue that, post-Edgar, the General Assembly and the Illinois State Board of Education have imposed statewide educational standards, including the Illinois Learning Standards first issued by the Board in 1997 and reinforced by the Evidence-Based Funding for Student Success Act in 2017.  In other words, the plaintiffs alleged that the State imposes statewide objective standards for educational success, and yet fails to adequately fund school districts so that those standards can actually be achieved in all districts.  The two-justice majority in Cahokia affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ complaint on the basis that stare decisis compelled adherence to Edgar.

Justice Milton S. Wharton, however, authored a compelling dissent in which he explained that Edgar has been overtaken by subsequent events — and not just by a continuing deterioration of Illinois’s public education system, but by changes to the legal landscape.  He explained:

"When the supreme court decided Edgar, it was impossible for courts to address alleged violations of the quality education clause without first determining what type of education constituted a quality education because there was no legislative answer to that question.  . . .  In the 24 years subsequent to the Edgar decision, our legislature modified and expanded the requirements all Illinois schools must enact and employ in educating students.  The legislature adopted legislation requiring the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to establish academic standards for all Illinois public school students to meet.  . . .  Overall, I find that the legislature has modified the original balance between the goals of ensuring a quality education for all Illinois students and promoting local control of schools as was in application when Edgar was decided.  As a result, much of the control that local school boards once enjoyed has been shifted to the State."

Id. at ¶¶33-36.  In short, the State cannot have it both ways by denying that objective standards exist for assessing whether educational services are of a “high quality” and simultaneously imposing objective educational quality standards on school districts across the State.  Nor can the State have it both ways by imposing statewide standards and avoiding accountability under the guise of deference to “local control.”

Indeed, as Justice Wharton explained, underprivileged students are harmed by the “combination of the underfunding alleged by the plaintiffs and the State-mandated education and testing requirements.”  Id. at ¶38.  The plaintiffs in Cahokia did not even seek education on equal terms with “more affluent school districts,” but only “a level of funding sufficient to fulfill the mandated educational requirements that the legislature and ISBE have determined to be their responsibility.”  Id. at 39.  And because “legislative and administrative enactments have resulted in the definition of a high quality education in Illinois,” courts “do not have to define what constitutes a high quality education.”  Id.  The premise of Edgar’s holding thus no longer exists.

The Cahokia case will now be decided by the Illinois Supreme Court, which may overrule Edgar or simply decide that its holding has been superseded by subsequent legislation and administrative rules.  If that occurs, the constitutional guarantee of “high quality” public educational services for all Illinoisans may finally become a reality.  As we have learned from bitter experience, a constitutional guarantee means very little unless it is judicially enforceable.

* The opinions expressed in this post are solely those of the author.

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