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The essential requirements for asserting a declaratory judgment action are (1) a plaintiff with a legal tangible interest, (2) a defendant with an opposing interest, and (3) an actual controversy between the parties involving those interests. The standing requirement in a declaratory judgment action is established by demonstrating that an "actual controversy" exists between adverse parties and that the plaintiff is interested in the controversy. In the declaratory judgment context, an "actual controversy" means a concrete dispute admitting of an immediate and definitive determination of the parties' rights, the resolution of which will aid in the termination of the controversy or some part thereof. The "actual controversy" requirement ensures that courts will not pass judgment on mere abstract propositions of law, render an advisory opinion, or give legal advice as to future events.
The plaintiffs are 22 school districts located in St. Clair, Bond, Christian, Fayette, Jersey, Macoupin, Madison, Montgomery, and Peoria Counties. Plaintiffs filed a two-count first amended complaint alleging violations of article X, section 1 (the education article), and the equal protection clause of the Illinois Constitution. They sought a judgment declaring that the defendants, Governor J. B. Pritzker and the State of Illinois, have a constitutional obligation to provide them with funding necessary to meet or achieve the learning standards established by the Illinois State Board of Education. Plaintiffs asked the court to enter judgment for the necessary amounts and for the court to "[r]etain jurisdiction to enforce such schedule of payments."
For the first count, plaintiffs alleged that the State Board of Education adopted the Illinois learning standards in 1997, setting forth the knowledge and skills that Illinois students must demonstrate at specific grade levels. The learning standards were revised and expanded since their initial adoption to impose more specific benchmarks on the plaintiff school districts to ensure student achievement of those requirements. The revisions and expansion of the learning standards included the 2010 adoption of the Common Core State Standards for English, language arts, and mathematics, as required by section 2-3.64a-5 of the School Code. In accordance with the School Code, the learning standards were developed with public involvement and comment. Plaintiffs alleged that the learning standards, therefore, "represent a consensus of the citizens of Illinois as to an appropriate 'high quality' education for purposes of Article X, Section 1." Plaintiffs alleged that their students are being held accountable for meeting the learning standards through various assessments but that the State had failed to give the plaintiff school districts adequate funding to assist students in achieving those standards. Further, the State, in effect, evaluates school districts based on the percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations on those assessments. Students' scores on those assessments are also part of their record and are considered in determining whether to admit them to Illinois public colleges and universities. Plaintiffs further alleged that the combined state and local revenue per student in their school districts was below the average for all districts in the State and far below the revenue per student in the wealthier districts comprising the top fifth in local resources. Plaintiffs alleged that students in their districts and other low-wealth districts fail required assessments at much higher rates than students in wealthier districts. Thus, per-student revenue was a primary determinant of whether students achieve the learning standards. Plaintiffs alleged the disparity has made it more difficult for low-wealth school districts to prevent loss of students to other schools or districts. The loss of those students further reduces the local resources used to help fund the plaintiff school districts, leading to an even greater disparity between districts. Based on those circumstances, the General Assembly enacted Public Act 100-465 (eff. Aug. 31, 2017), known as the Evidence-Based Funding for Student Success Act (Funding Act), with the purpose of providing additional funding to underresourced school districts. Under the Funding Act, while school districts retained the level of State funding they have previously received, the underresourced districts were given priority in allocating additional funding. Plaintiffs alleged that the Funding Act established a goal of meeting the adequacy targets for under-resourced districts by June 30, 2027, but that goal will not be met with the State's current level of additional funding set at $350 million per year. Plaintiffs, therefore, sought a judgment declaring that the State and the Governor have a legal duty to provide the additional funding, as required by the Funding Act. Plaintiffs alleged in count I of their complaint that the State had unlawfully failed to provide the funding necessary for plaintiffs to achieve the learning standards, in violation of article X, section 1, of the Illinois Constitution. Plaintiffs also alleged in count I that the Governor had exceeded his lawful authority by "operating a public education system that operates in this unconstitutional manner."
In count II, plaintiffs alleged they and their students were deprived of the right to equal protection of the laws, in violation of article I, section 2, of the Illinois Constitution. In support of that claim, plaintiffs alleged that the disparity in expenditures between school districts in Illinois ranged as high as $10,000 to $15,000 per student. Plaintiffs asserted those disparities in public funding were shocking, had no legitimate basis in the law, and "can no longer be justified as an acceptable consequence of the State's goal of local control over local educational effort when in recent years the State has significantly displaced local control by imposing the Learning Standards."
The circuit court of St. Clair County granted the defendants' motions to dismiss the complaint under sections 2-615 and 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure. The appellate court affirmed the circuit court's judgment. On appeal to the Court, plaintiffs have abandoned their claims against the State of Illinois but continue to assert their claims against the Governor.
Was the Governor a proper defendant to the plaintiffs’ claims?
In their prayer for relief, plaintiffs asked for a court order requiring the Governor to provide them with the funding necessary to achieve the learning standards. Plaintiffs requested a judgment for the amounts determined to be necessary and for the court to "[r]etain jurisdiction to enforce such schedule of payments." Thus, the essential relief requested by the plaintiff school districts was a court order requiring the Governor to provide them with additional public funding. The Illinois Constitution, however, "preserves the separation of powers between the three branches of government—the legislative, executive and judicial—and further provides that one branch shall not exercise the powers delegated to the others." The appropriations clause provides that "[t]he General Assembly by law shall make appropriations for all expenditures of public funds by the State." Accordingly, "[t]he power to appropriate for the expenditure of public funds is vested exclusively in the General Assembly; no other branch of government holds such power." As in Illinois Press Ass'n and Saline Branch Drainage District, the Governor was not a proper defendant here because he has no authority to take the action requested by plaintiffs. This case, therefore, did not involve an actual controversy between the parties necessary for a declaratory judgment action.
Plaintiffs' request for an order directing the Governor to propose additional funding in his State budget was apparently an attempt to remedy the defect in their complaint asking for an order requiring the Governor to actually provide that funding to plaintiffs. Nonetheless, the request for an order dictating to the Governor a specific funding amount to be included in his State budget also raised separation of powers concerns. Under the federal constitution, the power to propose a State budget is delegated to the Governor. Article VIII, section 2(a), of the Illinois Constitution provides that the Governor "shall prepare and submit to the General Assembly, at a time prescribed by law, a State budget for the ensuing fiscal year," including "a plan for expenditures and obligations during the fiscal year." As noted, that section also contains the appropriations clause, stating "[t]he General Assembly by law shall make appropriations for all expenditures of public funds by the State." Article VIII, section 2, therefore, delegated specific powers to both the Governor and the legislature in the budget-making process. Plaintiffs' requested order directing the Governor to include specific additional funding amounts in his State budget would interfere with the constitutional power delegated to the Governor. Under separation of powers principles, the Court may not exercise constitutional powers belonging to the other branches of government. Further, plaintiffs' requests for an order directing the Governor to include additional funding in his State budget and for an order declaring to the Governor that plaintiffs have a constitutional right to additional public funding were simply not proper requests for declaratory relief.
Ultimately, as pled in their complaint, plaintiffs sought a judgment requiring the State to provide them with the additional funding necessary for their students to achieve the learning standards. In their brief, plaintiffs asserted that "[t]he vindication of a constitutional right will make it more likely to reach that goal" and that "the budget proposed by the Governor *** typically has an enormous impact on the actual budget that the General Assembly will pass." Plaintiffs, therefore, recognized that the proposed alternative orders will not necessarily result in the State providing the effective relief they seek in the form of additional funding. Without granting effective relief, the proposed orders would essentially amount to an advisory opinion, contrary to the actual controversy requirement for a declaratory judgment action.