The Ohio Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a narrowly divided opinion that publicly funded, privately operated charters schools are constitutional.

The 4-3 decision was a blow to a coalition of citizen groups, teachers' unions, education associations and school boards led by the Ohio PTA.

The court upheld the state Legislature's ability to create and to give money to common institutions of learning, even if they are not all the same.

"As the statewide body, the General Assembly has the legislative authority and latitude to set the standards and requirements for common schools, including different standards for community schools," Justice Judith Lanzinger wrote for the majority.

But in a dissent, Justice Alice Robie Resnick argued that the Ohio Community Schools Act violates the Ohio Constitution because it "produces a hodgepodge of uncommon schools financed by the state."

She said that rather than adding to the traditional school system, the charter school legislation has created a situation in which "an assemblage of divergent and deregulated privately owned and managed community schools competes against public schools for public funds."

Lanzinger's majority opinion compared charter schools to earlier education programs.

"Throughout time, new educational movements have faced opponents and detractors," Lanzinger wrote. "But just as the common-school movement of the 1800s increasingly gained supporters throughout the United States, so too has the charter-school movement."

Resnick said Lanzinger's characterization was questionable.

"This court's function is to determine the constitutionality of charter schools as established by statute in Ohio, not to promote their cause," she wrote. "Whether the 'charter-school movement' has truly gained supporters or opponents, nationally or in Ohio, is a subject of social discourse for the political branches of our government."

Teachers' unions, later joined by the other groups, sued Ohio in 2001 over the state's 1998 charter school law, under which the alternative schools have grown from 15 in 1998 to 250 last year. As the movement has grown, criticism has intensified, particularly over charter school students' lagging standardized test scores.

State auditors said in August they believed the state Department of Education officials failed to make site visits and other checks in 2005 to monitor more than $20 million in state money that was given to charter school operators.