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Miller: ISBE lawsuit could cause headaches for governor

Gov. Bruce Rauner attended a meeting last week of his “Cabinet on Children & Youth,” but it’s not known if he pulled aside one of its members, State Superintendent of Education Tony Smith, for a little chat.

The Illinois State Board of Education is reportedly mulling whether to settle a civil-rights lawsuit filed eight years ago by the Chicago Urban League. The suit essentially claims that Illinois’ education funding system violates minority students’ rights because a disproportionate number of those kids reside in areas with the lowest property wealth and also attend schools with majority-minority enrollment. They’re basically getting shafted by the state, so they sued.

According to the Urban League’s CEO Shari Runner, the ISBE “walked away from lengthy settlement talks that we held this summer.” The group has filed a motion for summary judgment and Runner said last week it is “awaiting ISBE’s response.” Runner said the group hopes to “hold ISBE liable for implementing an unlawful and discriminatory school system.”

A settlement would drastically alter the way Illinois funds its school system, with wealthier suburban and Downstate districts losing tons of state money. It would also pre-empt long-stalled legislative action on the topic.

Last summer, when negotiations with the Urban League were still apparently underway, Rauner impaneled an education funding reform working group and charged it with coming up with a solution to the funding inequities by the first of next year. So, the Urban League’s civil- rights lawsuit may actually be why Rauner imposed such an ambitious timetable.

What the administration doesn’t want (along with a whole lot of impacted legislators) is to take the tricky solution out of the hands of the governor and the General Assembly and give it to a Cook County judge. But there’s no guarantee that the governor’s funding reform working group will come to an agreement. A deal is politically complicated because legislators who represent wealthier school districts also tend to oppose tax increases. But they’ll be forced to choose between losing state cash or voting for higher state taxes. Some might actually welcome judicial intervention to spare them this fate.

Word from inside is that some ISBE legal staff are urging board members to settle the suit. The board’s chief legal counsel, for instance, is a former Chicago Public Schools chief of staff. The city’s school system filed an amicus brief years ago supporting the Urban League case.

Perhaps more importantly, though, a massive amount of supporting data have been compiled since the suit was brought all those years ago, mainly because of state Sen. Andy Manar’s constant push to reform the system. The plaintiffs might be able to make their case more easily now than they could when their suit was filed. So, the logic goes, a settlement would be far better than a loss.

Smith has made no bones about the fact that the state’s funding system is archaic and harmful to minority children, but he apparently hasn’t spoken up in the last couple of private board meetings when members discussed the litigation, and one board member swears Smith is not communicating directly with members about the case. Still, rumors abound that he is driving the settlement talks.

Smith has recently upped his national profile by traveling the country to talk about various education issues. He is not a popular man within the administration for several reasons, and his generous employment contract caused the Rauner folks quite a few headaches last year. Some Republicans claim he’s angling for a spot in a potential Hillary Clinton administration, which he has denied.

State Board of Education Chairman James Meeks, a former state senator who pushed hard for education funding reform for years and was one of a tiny number of high-profile African-Americans to support Rauner’s 2014 election, has reportedly not taken an official position on the litigation. Meeks is said to be suggesting that board members also talk with the governor’s legal counsel to get another side of the issue. The board insists that Smith doesn’t have the authority to settle the case on his own, and there’s no indication at this moment that he plans to do so.

A settlement would also create a thorny political problem for Rauner down the road. A big chunk of his political base would get the short end of the stick, which won’t go over well when he runs for reelection in 2018.

Ironically, the state government got itself dismissed from the case several years ago, so I suppose we could see the administration try to get itself back into the game if the ISBE decides to move forward with a settlement.

• Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and

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