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Connecticut Aid Formula Upheld, But Trial on Funding Is Ordered

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Hartford, Conn--The Connecticut Supreme Court has declared constitutional the state's school-finance system, which is designed to reduce educational disparities between wealthy and poor districts.

But the court also ordered a lower court to determine whether changes the state has made to the school-aid program, including delays in funding, unconstitutionally deny students "a substantially equal educational opportunity."

Elliot F. Gerson, the state's deputy attorney general, hailed the ruling as "a victory for the state." The new legal standard, he said, will make it more difficult for plaintiffs to sue the state on equity grounds.

The high-court ruling in the landmark case, Horton v. Meskill, is the latest chapter in a 12-year battle by Wesley W. Horton, a Hartford parent and lawyer, to force the state to spend more money on schools in poor towns and cities. He first brought the suit in 1973 against then-Gov. Thomas J. Meskill and other state officials.

Mr. Horton's original lawsuit charged that the state's system of financing education--a flat per-pupil grant--was unconstitutional because wealthy towns, which could supplement the state grants with local resources, spent more money per pupil than poor towns.

In 1974, an order by the superior court required the state's General Assembly to design a more equitable financing scheme. The state supreme court upheld that ruling in 1977. Two years later, the General Assembly began to distribute state grants--which this year total $422 million--under a formula known as the "guaranteed tax base." That system takes into account towns' wealth, how much they spend on their schools, and their economic needs. The legislation called for phasing in the grant program over five years.

The legislature, however, delayed full financing of the program, and in 1980 Mr. Horton filed suit again, claiming that the system was still unconstitutional. Last year, a Connecticut Superior Court judge ruled that while the overall program is constitutional, the funding delays and changes in the complex formula are not. He also ordered the legislature to fully fund the program immediately.

The state appealed that decision to the Connecticut Supreme Court. In its Jan. 15 ruling, the high court said the lower court used the wrong standard to determine whether changes made in the system were constitutional. "The proper test requires the state to prove that the amendments reasonably advanced a rational state policy and that they did not result in an unconstitutionally large disparity," Chief Justice Ellen A. Peters wrote in the unanimous majority decision.

Mr. Horton, reacting to the court's ruling, said he was disappointed that the General Assembly would not have to immediately increase spending for the school-finance program, which would have required the state to spend an extra $38 million this fiscal year.

Gov. William A. O'Neill, however, has said he will propose spending that extra money in fiscal 1986.

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