A sharply divided Supreme Court ruled Friday that children from poor families do not have a constitutional right to free bus transportation to and from school.

The 5-4 decision in a case from North Dakota has particular importance for people in rural areas. The ruling was denounced by the dissenters for denying hope and equal opportunity to the disadvantaged.The court's majority, however, said North Dakota officials acted rationally and lawfully in permitting local school districts to charge busing fees.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote for the court that states generally have a free hand in deciding whether families must pay to get their children to school

"A state's decision to allow local school boards the option of charging patrons a user fee for bus service is constitutionally permissible," she said. "The Constitution does not require that such service be provided at all, and it is difficult to imagine why choosing to offer the service should entail a constitutional obligation to offer it for free."

The ruling is in line with earlier court decisions upholding laws that treat the wealthy and poor differently. For example, the court has upheld the use of property taxes to support public schools even though children from less affluent communities may suffer. The court has said such laws are permissible if they serve a rational purpose.

But in a dissenting opinion Friday, Justice Thurgood Marshall said, "For the poor, education is often the only route by which to become full participants in our society. In allowing a state to burden the access of poor persons to an education, the court denies equal opportunity and discourages hope."

Justices William J. Brennan, John Paul Stevens and Harry A. Blackmun also dissented.