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Lewis E. v. Spagnolo

April 15, 1999

LEWIS E. ET AL., APPELLEES, V. JOSEPH A. SPAGNOLO, SUPERINTENDENT OF EDUCATION, ET AL., APPELLANTS.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Bilandic

Agenda 11-November 1998.

In this appeal, this court is once again asked to enter the arena of Illinois public school policy. A class of schoolchildren residing in East St. Louis School District 189 challenges the adequacy of the education being provided to them in District 189 schools. We now reaffirm our recent holding in Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar, 174 Ill. 2d 1 (1996), that questions relating to the quality of a public school education are for the legislature, not the courts, to decide.

The plaintiffs are a putative class of school-age children residing in East St. Louis School District 189 (the District), acting through their parents or guardians. The named plaintiffs are 11 children attending various elementary or secondary schools in the district. The defendants are the Illinois State Board of Education and Superintendent of Education Joseph Spagnolo (the State defendants), and the board of education of the East St. Louis School District 189 and Geraldine Jenkins, the superintendent of District 189 (the District defendants). The plaintiffs filed their class action complaint in the circuit court of St. Clair County on April 12, 1995.

The complaint alleges the existence of numerous deficiencies in District 189 schools. The complaint charges that the District defendants have, for decades, failed to maintain school buildings and grounds in a manner that protects the safety of District students, failed to provide rudimentary instructional equipment and qualified teachers, and "otherwise so mismanaged the affairs of the District that children are unsafe and cannot reasonably be expected to learn in District schools." The complaint alleges that "most" of the District's 31 school buildings are in "wretched disrepair." The plaintiffs cite numerous examples of unsafe conditions in the schools which, they contend, are the result of the District defendants' neglect, including: fire hazards; chronic flooding; structural flaws, such as falling plaster and cracked walls and roofs; malfunctioning heating systems; unsanitary restrooms; rooms sealed-off due to the presence of asbestos; broken windows; burnt-out light bulbs; non-working water fountains; the presence of cockroaches and rats; and cold, nonnutritious lunches in the cafeterias. These examples are alleged to have occurred in various schools at various times since 1989. The complaint further alleges that, due to the District defendants' failure to provide adequate security, violence in the schools is widespread. The complaint lists several examples of violence which have occurred in various schools.

The plaintiffs' complaint also charges that, because of the District defendants' neglect and mismanagement, the students in the District are provided with meager instructional equipment, unsupervised, disengaged, and uncertified teachers, and systemic staffing deficiencies which resulted in some classrooms being without teachers at times. The complaint also cites to high drop-out rates and low test scores among the students in the District and alleges that these poor outcomes are the result of the District defendants' failure to provide an adequate instructional program. Finally, the complaint charges the District defendants with reckless mismanagement of the District's financial affairs.

As to the State defendants, the plaintiffs' complaint alleges that they have failed to adequately intervene in the District defendants' administration of the District. The plaintiffs acknowledge that the State Board of Education appointed a financial oversight panel in 1994 to oversee the District's finances. The complaint alleges that the panel's authority is too circumscribed to remedy problems of student safety and educational quality. The plaintiffs also allege that the State defendants have failed to enforce educational and safety standards in the District. Specifically, the complaint charges that the State defendants continue to formally recognize and otherwise accredit District schools that they know or should know are unreasonably dangerous and educationally inadequate.

The complaint charges that the State and District defendants have violated the plaintiffs' rights under the education article of the Illinois Constitution (Ill. Const. 1970, art. X, §1), the due process clauses of the United States and Illinois Constitutions (U.S. Const., amend. XIV, §1; Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, §2), and various provisions of the Illinois School Code (105 ILCS 5/1-1 et seq. (West 1996)). In addition, the complaint alleges that the District defendants have violated common law duties owed to the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment that they "have the right to a safe, adequate education under the Illinois and United States Constitutions, the School Code, and common law." The plaintiffs further seek an order requiring the defendants to submit and implement a plan assuring the provision of safe, adequate public schools and correcting the conditions outlined in the complaint. In the alternative, the plaintiffs request that the State Board be ordered to revoke recognition of District 189 and to direct the reassignment of District 189 pupils to other school districts. The plaintiffs also seek an order directing the defendants to provide the plaintiffs with supplemental educational services needed to compensate them for the inadequate education provided to them in the past.

The circuit court dismissed the plaintiffs' complaint with prejudice, pursuant to section 2-615 of Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 1996)). The plaintiffs appealed and the appellate court reversed in part and affirmed in part. The appellate court affirmed the dismissal of each of the plaintiff's claims. 287 Ill. App. 3d 822. The appellate court, however, did so only on the ground that the plaintiffs had not pled sufficiently detailed facts stating the particular acts and omissions of the defendants that allegedly created the inadequate conditions in the schools. The court held that the plaintiffs could possibly plead facts sufficient to state a claim under each of these theories and remanded to allow the plaintiffs to amend their complaint. We granted a petition for leave to appeal filed by the defendants. 166 Ill. 2d R. 315. The plaintiffs are seeking cross-relief from the appellate court's holdings that they did not plead sufficiently detailed facts to avoid the dismissal, albeit without prejudice, of their claims.

ANALYSIS

I. Education Article

We first address whether the plaintiffs may state a cause of action under the education article of our state constitution. Ill. Const. 1970, art. X, §1. Section 1 of article X of the Illinois Constitution of 1970 provides, in its entirety, as follows:

"A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities. The State shall provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services. Education in public schools through the secondary level shall be free. There may be such other free education as the General Assembly provides by law. The State has the primary responsibility for financing the system of public education." Ill. Const. 1970, art. X, §1.

The plaintiffs argue that this article grants them the right to a "minimally adequate education," and that they may sue state and local officials directly under this article for deprivation of that right. They claim that schoolchildren who are denied the "basic components" of education, which they define as "teachers, textbooks, and reasonably safe school buildings," are denied a free public education in violation of this article. The defendants respond that, under this court's decision in Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar, 174 Ill. 2d 1 (1996), the quality of public education is a legislative matter and is not justiciable.

We agree with the defendants that Committee for Educational Rights is dispositive of this issue. In that case, a group of plaintiffs consisting of school districts, local boards of education, students and parents brought an action to challenge the state statutory scheme governing the funding of public schools in Illinois. Among other claims, the plaintiffs asserted that the statutory scheme violated the education article of the Illinois Constitution because the system did not provide a "high quality" education, as required by that article, to students in poorer districts. In considering this claim, this court analyzed whether the quality of the public education system was subject to judicial review. We reasoned that we must determine "whether the quality of education is capable of or properly subject to measurement by the courts." Committee for Educational Rights, 174 Ill. 2d at 24. This court in Committee for Educational Rights concluded that "questions relating to the quality of education are solely for the legislative branch to answer." Committee for Educational Rights, 174 Ill. 2d at 24. In reaching this Conclusion, we first noted that the education article of the 1970 Constitution corresponded to section 1 of article VIII of the 1870 Constitution, which provided that "[t]he general assembly shall provide a thorough and efficient system of free schools, whereby all children of this State may receive a good common school education." Ill. Const. 1870, art. VIII, §1. Under that provision, decisions of this court had consistently held that questions relating to the efficiency and thoroughness of the school system were solely for the legislature to answer, and that the courts lacked the power to intrude. Committee for Educational Rights, 174 Ill. 2d at 24-25. Although the requirement that schools provide a "good common school education" was recognized to be a limitation on the legislature's power to enact public school laws, that limitation was not among those held generally capable of judicial enforcement. Rather, the only limitations which the courts could enforce were that the schools shall be free and open to all equally. Committee for Educational Rights, 174 Ill. 2d at 25, quoting Fiedler v. Eckfeldt, 335 Ill. 11, 23 (1929). The court in Richards v. Raymond, 92 Ill. 612 (1879), explained the reason for precluding judicial review of the question of what constitutes a "good common school education":

"No definition of a common school is given or specified in the constitution, nor does that instrument declare what course of studies shall constitute a common school education. *** The phrase, `a common school education' is one not easily defined. One might say that a student instructed in reading, writing, geography, English grammar and arithmetic had received a common school education, while another who had more enlarged notions on the subject might insist that history, natural philosophy and algebra should be included. It would thus be almost impossible to find two persons who would in all respects agree in regard to what constituted a common school education." Richards, 92 Ill. at 617.

This court in Committee for Educational Rights proceeded to conclude that the education article of the 1970 Constitution did not alter the role of the courts in this arena. We reasoned that "[c]courts are no more capable of defining `high quality educational institutions and services' under our present constitution than they were able to define a `good common school education' under the 1870 Constitution." Committee for Educational Rights, 174 Ill. 2d at 27. We explained that what constitutes a "high quality" education cannot be ascertained by any judicially discoverable or manageable standards and that 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.

To hold that the question of educational quality is subject to judicial determination would largely deprive the members of the general public of a voice in a matter which is close to the hearts of all individuals in Illinois. *** [A]n open and robust public debate is the lifeblood of the political process in our system of representative democracy. Solutions to problems of educational quality should emerge from a spirited dialogue between the people of the state and their elected representatives." Committee for Educational Rights, 174 Ill. 2d at 28-29.

This court accordingly held that, to the extent the plaintiffs' education article claim was based on "perceived deficiencies in the quality of education in public schools," the claim was properly dismissed. Committee for Educational Rights, 174 Ill. 2d at 32. The defendants here argue that the decision in Committee for Educational Rights defeats the plaintiffs' attempt to state a claim under the education article. They contend that this court has unequivocally held that it is solely up to the legislature, not the courts, to decide whether an education being provided meets the quality requirements of the constitution. The plaintiffs assert, however, that Committee for Educational Rights is not dispositive here because that decision did not address a claim that children were being deprived of a "minimally adequate" education, as opposed to a "high quality" education. The plaintiffs claim that they do not challenge the quality of education in their district but, rather, the "virtual absence" of education in their district. According to the plaintiffs, the courts can and must decide whether students in a particular district are being provided with the "rudimental elements" of education, which the plaintiffs define as "certified teachers, basic instructional materials, and reasonably safe school buildings."

We find the plaintiffs' attempt to distinguish the holding in Committee for Educational Rights unpersuasive. That decision did not limit itself to whether the courts could define a "high quality" education but, rather, considered the broadly stated issue of "whether the quality of education is capable of or properly subject to measurement by the courts." (Emphasis added.) Committee for Educational Rights, 174 Ill. 2d at 24. This court concluded that "questions relating to the quality of education are solely for the legislative branch to answer." (Emphasis added.) Committee for Educational Rights, 174 Ill. 2d at 24. In fact, we defined the claim raised by the plaintiffs as whether poor school districts provide a "normatively inadequate education." Committee for Educational Rights, 174 Ill. 2d at 11. Attempting to distinguish "high quality" from "minimally adequate" in this context is nothing more than semantics. No matter how the question is framed, recognition of the plaintiffs' cause of action under the education article would require the judiciary to ascertain from the constitution alone the content of an "adequate" education. The courts would be called upon to define what minimal standards of education are required by the constitution, under what conditions a classroom, school, or district falls below these minimums so as to constitute a "virtual absence of education," and what remedy should be imposed. Our decision in Committee for Educational Rights made clear that these determinations are for the legislature, not the courts, to decide.

The plaintiffs nonetheless argue that judicial review in this case is permitted under the so-called "boundary cases" such as People ex rel. Leighty v. Young, 309 Ill. 27 (1923). In Committee for Educational Rights, we noted that a "limited exception" to the principle that the courts will not generally decide questions of the thoroughness and efficiency of school systems had been recognized for matters relating to school district boundaries. Committee for Educational Rights, 174 Ill. 2d at 16. Under this exception, courts have declared invalid school districts that were configured in such a way as to deny students access to a school. See People ex rel. Community Unit School District No. 5 v. Decatur School District No. 61, 31 Ill. 2d 612, 613-14 (1964); Leighty, 309 Ill. at 35. The plaintiffs argue that this exception may be applied here because students who are deprived of a minimally adequate education are in reality being deprived of access to an education.

We do not agree that the exception recognized in Leighty is applicable here. The plaintiffs have not alleged in this case that schoolchildren are being denied access to schools. Rather, the plaintiffs complain about the quality of the education that is being provided in those schools. The plaintiffs are thus asking this court to define standards for an adequate education derived solely from the constitution, a task which we have already held we cannot undertake. The plaintiffs urge, however, that this court must be permitted to intervene where, for instance, a school district provides a school that consists of nothing more than a vacant building marked with the word "School." This hypothetical situation, of course, is not presented in this case. Moreover, we consider it highly unlikely that the legislature would ever set standards for education so as to allow for such a situation.

Parenthetically, we note that those items which the plaintiffs assert are included within the "rudimental elements" of education, i.e., certified teachers, basic instructional materials, and reasonably safe buildings, are addressed by the Illinois School Code. 105 ILCS 5/21-1 through 21-26 (West 1996) (certification of teachers); 105 ILCS 5/28-1 through 28-21 (West 1996) (instructional materials); 105 ILCS 5/2-3.12 (West 1996) (school building code). The plaintiffs emphasize that they are not challenging the constitutionality of the statutory scheme implemented by the legislature to comply with the education article. To the extent the plaintiffs are deprived of services mandated by the School Code, their relief, if any, lies in an action to enforce the Code.

Accordingly, we hold that the plaintiffs may not state a claim based upon violation of the education article of the Illinois constitution. The circuit court therefore properly dismissed the plaintiffs' education article claim with prejudice.

II. Due Process

We next address whether the plaintiffs may state a cause of action under the due process provisions of the United States and Illinois Constitutions. We hold that the plaintiffs cannot state a claim for a due process violation under either the United States Constitution or the Illinois Constitution.

A. Federal Due Process Clause

We begin our analysis with the federal due process clause. The due process clause of the fourteenth amendment states: "nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." U.S. Const., amend. XIV, §1. The plaintiffs here rely on the substantive component of the clause. The substantive component protects fundamental liberty interests against infringement by the government, regardless of the procedures provided. Reno v. Flores, 507 U.S. 292, 301-02, 123 L. Ed. 2d 1, 16, 113 S. Ct. 1439, 1447 (1993); Collins v. City of Harker Heights, 503 U.S. 115, 125, 117 L. Ed. 2d 261, 273, 112 S. Ct. 1061, 1068 (1992).

Initially, we note that education is not a fundamental right protected by the federal constitution. See San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, 411 U.S. 1, 36 L. Ed. 2d 16, 93 S. Ct. 1278 (1973); see also Committee for Educational Rights v. Edgar, 174 Ill. 2d 1, 34 (1996). The plaintiffs nonetheless attempt to use the federal due process clause to impose on the defendants the affirmative obligation to provide a "minimally safe and adequate education." The plaintiffs ostensibly advance two theories to support the imposition of this duty under the due process clause. First, the plaintiffs argue that the Illinois compulsory education law constitutes a deprivation of the plaintiffs' liberty, which gives rise to an affirmative duty on the part of the state to provide a minimally adequate education. Second, the plaintiffs assert that this duty arose because the defendants subjected the plaintiffs to state-created dangers. We hold that the plaintiffs may not state a claim for a due process violation under either theory.

(1) Compulsory Education Law

It is well established that the due process clause does not generally impose any affirmative obligation on the state to provide substantive services to its citizens. Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, 317, 73 L. Ed. 2d 28, 38, 102 S. Ct. 2452, 2459 (1982); Archie v. City of Racine, 847 F.2d 1211 (7th Cir. 1988). This is true even if such services may be necessary to secure life, liberty or property interests. DeShaney v. Winnebago County Department of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189, 196, 103 L. Ed. 2d 249, 259, 109 S. Ct. 998, 1003 (1989). Although the due process clause forbids the state itself from depriving individuals of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, its language does not impose an affirmative duty on the state to ensure that those interests are not harmed through other means. DeShaney, 489 U.S. at 195, 103 L. Ed. 2d at 259, 109 S. Ct. at 1003. As the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has noted, "[t]he Constitution is a charter of negative liberties; it tells the state to let people alone; it does not require the federal government or the state to provide services, even so elementary a service as maintaining law and order." Bowers v. DeVito, 686 F.2d 616, 618 (7th Cir. 1982); see also Archie, 847 F.2d at 1220-23 (holding that state has no due process duty to provide rescue services to those in danger).

The Supreme Court has determined, however, that "in certain limited circumstances the Constitution imposes upon the State affirmative duties of care and protection with respect to particular individuals." DeShaney, 489 U.S. at 198, 103 L. Ed. 2d at 260, 109 S. Ct. at 1004. In Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 50 L. Ed. 2d 251, 97 S. Ct. 285 (1976), the Court recognized that the eighth amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, made applicable to the states through the due process clause, required a state to provide medical care to incarcerated prisoners. The Estelle Court reasoned that because a prisoner, is " `by reason of the deprivation of his liberty,' " unable to care for himself, it is "just" that the State be required to care for him. Estelle, 429 U.S. at 104, 50 L. Ed. 2d at 260, 97 S. Ct. at 291, quoting Spicer v. Williamson, 191 N.C. 487, 490, 132 S.E. 291, 293 (1926).

The rationale of Estelle was extended beyond the eighth amendment setting in Youngberg v. Romeo, 457 U.S. 307, 73 L. Ed. 2d 28, 102 S. Ct. 2452 (1982). In Youngberg, the Supreme Court considered the substantive rights of involuntarily committed mentally retarded persons under the due process clause. After noting that, generally, a state is under no constitutional duty to provide substantive services to individuals, the Court found that "[w]hen a person is institutionalized - and wholly dependent on the State - *** a duty to provide certain services and care does exist." Youngberg, 457 U.S. at 317, 73 L. Ed. 2d at 38, 102 S. Ct. at 2459. The Court held that the due process clause obligated the state to provide involuntarily committed persons with such services as are necessary to ensure their safety and freedom from undue restraint. Youngberg, 457 U.S. at 319, 73 L. Ed. 2d at 39, 102 S. Ct. at 2460. The plaintiffs here seek to extend the rationale of Youngberg to apply to this case. The premise for the plaintiffs' argument is that the Illinois compulsory education law, mandating that children of a certain age attend school (105 ILCS 5/26-1 (West 1996)), operates as a ...


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