CHICAGO - The Chicago Urban League, a civil rights organization, has filed a lawsuit against Illinois and the state Board of Education challenging the constitutionality of the state's school funding system because of its heavy reliance on property taxes.

The league's lawsuit contends that the funding system violates several statutes, including the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 2003, and the state constitution because its heavy reliance on property taxes is inequitable and discriminates against families based on race. The litigation, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, argues that African American, Latino, and other minority children have been deprived for decades of a high-quality education.

Cheryle R. Jackson, president the Chicago Urban League, said in a statement: "Our children, especially African-Americans and Latinos, have been left behind because of poorly funded schools, while their white counterparts in wealthy communities are thriving. Their basic right to a quality education is being denied. Through our litigation and civic engagement around this issue, we want to make sure no more children are given a second-class education."

Representatives of the state board and Gov. Rod Blagojevich's office did not return calls to comment.

The lawsuit comes as students across the state are preparing to return to classrooms amid warnings that some districts, including Chicago, are grappling with budget deficits. School administrators are also facing growing public discontent with property tax increases.

The state's largest district - the Chicago Public Schools - is tapping $100 million from reserves and delaying a new-money bond sale to help stave off the need for a property tax increase to close a deficit in its $5 billion 2009 budget. Chicago is receiving an additional $98 million from the state in operating aid for the 2009 budget, but CPS had hoped to receive double that amount to balance its books. CPS and districts across the state are also grappling with a drought in new capital dollars from the state over the last few years.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley yesterday said he supports the lawsuit, calling it "constructive." Daley and other political leaders have grown increasingly frustrated over a lack of movement at the state level to alter how schools are funded. Daley and others have long endorsed a shift in the burden to income taxes, with an increase in that rate being used to increase funding and offset property taxes.

Blagojevich bowed to pressure from some Chicago ministers and earlier this month called a special session of the General Assembly to discuss school funding, but no progress on the issue was made. Some Chicago ministers are calling for a boycott of classes on the first day of school to call attention to the issue.

The lawsuit specifically calls into question the state's method for raising and distributing education funds to local school districts and the state board's implementation of the system. The litigation asks the court to declare the funding scheme unconstitutional and to order the state to implement a funding mechanism that meets state law.

"Illinois ranks 49th in the nation for the funding gap between rich and poor students, and white and minority students," Mary Ellen Guest, campaign manager of the organization A+ Illinois, said in a statement. "It should come as no surprise that Illinois also ranks near-last for the achievement gap between these groups of students."

Jenner & Block LLP is representing the league on a pro bono basis on the litigation, which is available at www.thechicagourbanleague.org/7232108201329597/lib/7232108201329597/Complaint.pdf.

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