Mission & History
Founded in 1973, the Education Law Center (ELC) serves as the leading voice for New Jersey’s public school children and has become one of the most effective advocates for equal educational opportunity and education justice in the United States. Widely recognized for groundbreaking court rulings on behalf of at-risk students, ELC also promotes educational equity through coalition building, litigation support, policy development, communications, and action-focused research in New Jersey, in other states, and at the federal level.
ELC’s legal and policy advocacy, which includes such landmark rulings as Abbott v. Burke, has significantly advanced the provision of fair school funding, high quality early education, safe and adequate school facilities, and school reform, especially to schools serving high concentrations of at-risk students and students with disabilities and other special needs. These successes have, in turn, resulted in strong academic gains and progress in closing student achievement gaps in New Jersey.
- All children have the potential to learn if given the opportunity to do so.
- All children have the legal right to a high quality education to prepare them for active participation in our democracy and economy.
- The quality of life in low-income communities can be improved, and the viability of public schools and outcomes for children can be strengthened, by providing children with the programs, resources and support needed for a high quality and equitable public education; and
- Effective and sustained advocacy is essential to ensure that all children have access to a high quality and equitable public education.
Throughout its decades-long history, ELC has worked to promote fair and equitable school funding and effective school reform.
ELC was founded in 1973 by Professor Paul Tractenberg of Rutgers Law School in Newark with a start-up grant from the Ford Foundation. Professor Tractenberg, while working on the Robinson v. Cahill school finance case (1970-75), came to understand that a concerted effort was needed to end New Jersey's discriminatory practice of funding suburban schools at a much higher level than urban schools.
In 1976, the Robinson case concluded, and the NJ Supreme Court approved the Public School Education Act of 1975, which established a new State funding formula for public schools. New Jersey's first income tax was adopted to pay for the new funding law.
Professor Tractenberg and ELC opposed the law before the NJ Supreme Court on the grounds that, while a step in the right direction, it would not close the wide gap in funding between urban and suburban schools.
In 1979, Marilyn Morheuser was hired as executive director of ELC. In 1981, she filed the Abbott v. Burke case on behalf of all children attending poor and urban schools in New Jersey. Ms. Morheuser, a former nun with the Kentucky-based Sisters of Loretto who taught and worked in the civil rights movement, was Professor Tractenberg’s former student.
After five years, the Abbott case went to trial, and in August 1988, Administrative Law Judge Steven Lefelt issued his 600-page initial decision, agreeing almost entirely with ELC's case. In 1990, the NJ Supreme Court affirmed Judge Lefelt's decision in its historic Abbott II ruling and ordered the State to provide the urban school districts with funding at “parity” with suburban schools as well as supplemental programs to address their special needs.
The NJ Supreme Court issued six more decisions – in 1994, 1997, 1998, 2000 and two in 2001 – to assure State compliance with its 1990 ruling. These Abbott v. Burke decisions have been heralded as the most important legal advances for public school children since Brown v. Board of Education. In addition to parity funding, the decisions led to creation of the successful, high quality Abbott preschool program, an extensive schools construction program, and a series of academic and wraparound programs to support at-risk students in the state’s urban school districts.
In January 1996, David Sciarra was hired as ELC's new executive director, after having spent many years as a civil rights lawyer in New Jersey, including 10 years at the New Jersey Public Advocate.
In recent years, ELC has continued to represent the Abbott schoolchildren before the NJ Supreme Court to protect the equity gains made as a result of these historic decisions, even as another school funding formula was passed by the State Legislature, NJ and the nation experienced a deep recession, and new challenges for public schools have emerged.
In addition, ELC has greatly expanded its capacity to provide services to parents and groups seeking legal assistance in the resolution of problems affecting the education of poor children and children with disabilities. ELC also facilitates coalitions of NJ parents, teachers and community and advocacy groups and serves as a resource to litigators and advocates around the country working towards fair and equitable school funding and effective school reform.