Court Cases;

OLR Research Report

October 9, 2003 98-R-0484

FROM: Judith S. Lohman, Principal Analyst

RE: State Education Grants and Court Decisions You asked which state education grants the courts considered in the Horton v. Meskill and the Sheff v. O'Neill cases when it looked at whether state education funding was constitutional or sufficient.


Horton v. Meskill is the lawsuit that dealt with the way Connecticut distributes education aid to towns. The first of the two Horton decisions by the Connecticut Supreme Court concerned with both state and local education funding. In that first decision, the court ruled the state had a responsibility to remedy the unconstitutionally unequal educational opportunities arising from its primary reliance on local property taxes as the main source of education funding. The second Horton decision dealt with the way state aid was distributed under the Guaranteed Tax Base (GTB) formula and with categorical state grants for special education, school transportation and school construction. The state's method of distributing the categorical grants was found constitutional in the second Horton decision as was the underlying GTB distribution formula. In that decision, the Supreme Court also rejected the idea of making the state contribute a set percentage to overall education funding.

In Sheff v. O'Neill, one count of the plaintiffs' complaint dealt with educational funding but the Supreme Court did not reach the constitutional merits of that count and the plaintiffs did not allege that the distribution of state aid was unconstitutional.


The first Horton v. Meskill decision primarily addressed the distribution rather than the level of state and local education funding. In 1977, the Connecticut Supreme Court found that the state's system of financing education was unconstitutional because it relied too heavily on local property taxes, which vary according to town wealth. The court ruled that the state had a constitutional obligation to make up for the disparity, which was denying children an equal educational opportunity based on where they lived. At that time, most state education aid to towns came in the form of flat $250-per-pupil grants. There were also categorical grants for special education and school transportation. The Horton decision eventually led the state to adopt a state aid distribution formula intended to equalize education resources among towns by distributing state aid according to town wealth, among other factors.

The overall level or sufficiency of state aid was not specifically addressed in the Horton I decision. The Connecticut Supreme Court did not propose specific remedies to address the constitutional violation it found. The court also ruled that property taxes were a viable means of producing education revenues and that equalization need not require all towns to spend the same amount on each student or diminish Connecticut's tradition of local control (Horton v. Meskill 172 Conn. 615 (1977)).


After the General Assembly adopted a new school funding distribution formula (the GTB formula), the Horton plaintiffs challenged the way it was implemented. In Horton II, the plaintiffs also specifically addressed the sufficiency of state education funding, arguing that the only adequate remedy for disparities among towns was for the state to fund 50% of the overall cost of education in the state. Both the trial court and the Supreme Court rejected this argument. The Supreme Court concluded that assigning a fixed expenditure share to the state “. . . did not provide a sound basis for assuring a proper distribution of responsibility or of funding for substantially equal education opportunities.”

In addition, in Horton II both the trial court and the Supreme Court found that the way the state distributed its categorical grants for special education, school transportation, and school construction (i.e. according to a sliding scale depending on town wealth), was constitutional. The Supreme Court found the categorical grants constitutional because the plaintiffs could not show that they “impinge on the fundamental right to a substantially equal education.” And the court upheld the basic GTB formula, though agreeing that some implementation factors undermined its equalizing effects (Horton v. Meskill, 195 Conn. 24 (1985)).


The Sheff decision was decided not on the issue of financial resources but on the concentration of racial and ethnic minority school children. Resources were raised as an issue in the case but were dealt with only briefly in the court's final decision. In the third count of their complaint, the plaintiffs alleged that the state failed to provide the children of Hartford with the educational resources necessary to obtain a minimally adequate education. But they did not argue that the funding provided by the state does not sufficiently balance any deficiency in the funding provided through the local property tax. And both parties stipulated that “the state formula for distributing state aid to local school districts 'provide[s] the most state aid to the neediest school districts.” In the end, the court never decided the merits of the plaintiffs' resource claim, ruling that the remedy did not depend on it (Sheff v. O'Neill, 238 Conn. 1 (1996)).