Education Law Center pursues justice and equity for public school students by enforcing their right to a high-quality education in safe, equitable, non-discriminatory, integrated, and well-funded learning environments. We seek to support and improve public schools as the center of communities and the foundation of a multicultural and multiracial democratic society. We strive to secure and protect the rights of students who are underserved, experience inadequate learning opportunities, or face discrimination based on race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, language, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, immigrant or migrant status, or disability. To achieve these goals, we engage in litigation, research and data analysis, policy advocacy, communications, and strategic partnerships and collaborations.
For almost 50 years, ELC has worked to promote fair and equitable school funding, racial justice 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.
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