A trial began Tuesday in Baltimore to settle a federal lawsuit that alleges that Maryland’s historically black colleges receive too little funding and institutional support to fully overcome past generations of state-sponsored discrimination.

The case hinges partly on whether Maryland spends enough money on its historically black public institutions to correct decades of disparity, a point the litigants dispute. It also poses a more complex question: For historically black schools to prosper, must they be protected against undue competition from other schools?

Maryland’s public higher-education system operated for decades under a succession of desegregation plans. Blacks were mostly barred from several public colleges until the mid-1950s, and the institutions remained deeply segregated into the 1970s.

Today, more than two-fifths of black students enrolled in Maryland public universities attend what were known as “traditionally white” institutions. Among them are Towson University and the University of Maryland Baltimore County, which have drawn national recognition for closing racial disparities in graduation rates.

Yet leaders of the state’s four historically black public institutions — Bowie State, Coppin State and Morgan State universities and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore — say they are unable to compete with those schools for talented students of any race.

“From the beginning, [historically black] universities were treated as second-class institutions,” said Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law. He is representing the plaintiffs, who are students and alumni of the four schools.

The lawsuit, filed in 2006, alleges that Maryland has failed to “honor its obligations” to historically black schools.

Under a civil rights agreement approved in 2000, state leaders were to “enhance” those schools, partly by favoring them in funding for instruction and construction. Instead, the lawsuit contends, state funding has risen more quickly at Towson and UMBC than at the historically black schools. Construction projects have taken, on average, three years longer at historically black schools than at historically white ones, the lawsuit says.

The suit was filed in U.S. District Court by a group of students and alumni from historically black schools called the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education. The primary defendant is the Maryland Higher Education Commission, a state agency that sets higher education policy.

State officials contend that historically black schools have received relatively more state dollars than other public institutions in the past decade. From 2001 to 2006, they said, state funding to historically black schools rose by 7 percent a year, while support to other comprehensive public universities rose 2 percent annually. New construction also has proceeded at a faster pace, and the population of African American students has grown across the university system, according to state data.

“No current state policies or practices have restricted the choice of any student to attend any institution of higher learning in the state of Maryland,” Craig Thompson, an attorney for the defendants, said in opening statements before U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake.

The most heated part of the debate has centered on how far the state should go to protect historically black schools against competition from other schools.

The 2000 agreement called for Maryland to avoid “unnecessary program duplication” between historically black institutions and other colleges as a way to promote “program uniqueness and institutional identity” at historically black schools. The language comes from a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

That provision has hindered Towson, UMBC and other schools in opening new programs that might compete directly with ones at historically black institutions.

The state higher education commission has blocked several proposals for such programs in an effort to protect the historically black schools. But some have been approved, including, in 2005, a joint master of business administration program at Towson and the University of Baltimore, which competes with a program at Morgan State.

Morgan State and its historically black peers cannot easily compete with rival specialty programs at better-funded schools, Greenbaum said.

“We want them to be schools that are able to compete for students of all races,” he said.

Universities in other states have been blocked from starting “duplicative” programs for similar reasons. Some of Maryland’s higher education leaders have fought such policies.

Robert Caret, a former Towson president, told the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2007, “I fully support our [historically black colleges and universities], but they have to realize that they are in a capitalistic society, and at some point they need to be working with these programs to make them competitive.”