For over 50 years, ELC has worked to promote fair and equitable school funding, racial justice, and students’ rights. 

ELC was founded in 1973 by Professor Paul Tractenberg of Rutgers Law School in Newark, New Jersey, 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 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, 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.

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 March 2023, Robert Kim was hired to succeed Mr. Sciarra as Executive Director. Mr. Kim, a leading expert and author in education law and policy, worked as staff counsel at the ACLU of Northern California, senior policy analyst at the National Education Association, and Senior Counsel and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Strategic Operations and Outreach in the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama Administration.

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