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updated: 9/18/2012 4:27 PM

School funding debate goes to Supreme Court

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  • The Illinois Supreme Court Tuesday heard arguments over whether the state's way of paying for schools is legal.

      The Illinois Supreme Court Tuesday heard arguments over whether the state's way of paying for schools is legal.
    Mike Riopell | Staff Photographer


SPRINGFIELD -- The way Illinois pays for schools is unfair and illegal because taxpayers in less wealthy districts often have to pay higher property tax rates than homeowners in wealthier districts, an attorney told the Illinois Supreme Court in arguments Tuesday.

Before the high court, attorney Alexander Polikoff of Business and Professional People for the Public Interest told justices that because people in two different parts of the state could pay vastly different property tax rates, the state law that governs school funding is unconstitutional.

In a wealthier district like in the suburbs, Polikoff said, a school can draw from a larger pool of property taxpayers, meaning an individual taxpayer's rate is lower. That's unfair to people in less-wealthy districts, who have to pay a bigger share of their home's value toward property taxes for schools just to meet the state's presumed minimum standards, he said.

That argument could face a steep hurdle, though.

Polikoff asked the court Tuesday simply to let his lawsuit proceed at a lower level. Lower courts had previously thrown it out, and the Illinois Supreme Court found the state's school funding methods legal in a different case 15 years ago.

Illinois Assistant Attorney General Daniel Berks said Polikoff was "barking up the wrong tree" because the state doesn't set local districts' tax rates -- school boards do. Plus, Berks said, the state is set up to pay out far more money to poor school districts than wealthy ones in order to try to even out those inequities in funding.

"It bolsters their tax money," Berks said.

The court likely won't make a decision soon, and the school funding debate that has raged in Illinois for decades will no doubt continue.

The issue has highlighted the geographic and wealth divisions between Chicago, the suburbs and downstate.

And the ongoing controversy over whether suburban and downstate schools should pay for teachers' pensions has served to further bring that ongoing conflict to the front of Illinois politics again.

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