The state Supreme Court ruled today that Connecticut schoolchildren are guaranteed an adequate standard of quality in their public schools — a crucial legal victory for a coalition seeking to force a dramatic increase in state spending on education.

It is the most significant ruling on school finance since another lawsuit, Horton vs. Meskill, radically altered the state’s school finance system more than three decades ago.

The decision makes educational quality a central factor in the argument that the state has failed to adequately fund its lowest-performing schools. It strengthens the hand of a coalition of municipal and education officials that is suing Connecticut over what it says is a broken and unfair system of paying for public education.

“This asserts once and for all that Connecticut schoolchildren have a constitutional right to a quality education,” said Dianne Kaplan deVries, project director for the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF).

Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, D-Meriden, said Monday he agrees that the current system of funding education, with its heavy reliance on the property tax, is broken. But fixing it, especially in today’s economic climate, will be extremely difficult.

“For this to change as dramatically as the plaintiffs intend it to change, it’s going to take an awful lot of political courage from whoever is the next governor, working with the General Assembly,” he said.

The coalition filed the suit, CCJEF vs. Rell, in 2005 on behalf of 15 students and their families, contending the state’s failure to suitably fund public schools limited their ability to take full advantage of college education or find meaningful employment.

However, in 2007, Hartford Superior Court Judge Joseph Shortall ruled that the state constitution does not guarantee a minimum standard of quality for public schools. The decision, in effect, gutted the coalition’s central legal argument involving educational adequacy. The coalition immediately appealed the ruling.

In Monday’s decision, the state Supreme Court overturned that ruling, saying the state constitution requires “that the public schools provide their students with an education suitable to give them the opportunity to be responsible citizens able to participate fully in democratic institutions, such as jury service and voting, and to prepare them to progress to institutions of higher education, or to attain productive employment and otherwise to contribute to the state’s economy.”

The coalition alleges serious inequities among public schools in areas such as preschool classes, libraries, technology, hours of instruction, class size, textbooks, special education programs and curriculum. It cited cases such as Lincoln Elementary School in New Britain, where 50 percent of kindergarten students had attended preschool programs, compared with 76 percent statewide. At Lincoln, there were no extra remedial math classes even though many students there struggled with math.

The court based its decision, in part, on constitutional guarantees established in the 1977 Horton vs. Meskill case on school finance and the 1996 Sheff vs. O’Neill ruling on school segregation in Hartford. In addition, the court cited similar school funding cases in New York, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Tennessee and the state of Washington.

The decision was a complex one, with Justice Flemming L. Norcott Jr, writing a plurality opinion joined by Justices Joette Katz and Barry Schaller. Justice Richard N. Palmer wrote a concurring opinion, as did Schaller. There also were two dissents, one written by Justice Christine S. Vertefeuille and the other by Justice Peter T. Zarella joined by Justice C. Ian McLachlan.

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