Bill would create state division to study school desegregation

By: - February 4, 2022 6:52 am

(Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

The Senate Education Committee advanced a bill that would create a new division to study and find solutions to segregation in New Jersey’s schools Thursday.

The measure, which cleared the committee in a 3-2 vote along party lines, would create a Division of School Desegregation within the Department of Education that would be tasked with gathering data on school district demographics, measuring how segregation affects educational attainment, and reviewing state law that requires students attend schools within their district of residence, among other things.

“New Jersey has the most segregated schools in the country, and I have it in Monmouth County,” said Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), the committee’s new chair. “You go town by town, it’s completely segregated, so I think this is a good bill, and I think this is a good first step.”

The division would also be tasked with implementing programs to diversify school populations.

The push to shine a spotlight on desegregation in New Jersey schools comes as a lawsuit filed by the Latino Action Network, the New Jersey NAACP, and others is set to begin oral arguments on March 3 after years at a standstill since being filed in 2018. Plaintiffs say the Murphy administration has fought efforts to desegregate the state’s schools.

Though New Jersey’s public schools are consistently ranked as among the best in the nation, that quality isn’t universal, and studies have repeatedly shown the state’s districts are segregated along racial and economic lines. A 2017 study from UCLA found a danger of “severe racial stratification and division” in schools here.

In most cases, schools are segregated across districts, with the causes often attributed to discriminatory housing practices dated to the mid-20th century that saw many white residents flock to suburbs while poorer and often non-white families remained in urban centers.

In Lakewood, Hispanic students accounted for 84% of the district’s public school population in 2018, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Just 11.8% of Lakewood’s population identified as Hispanic or Latino in the 2020 census.

Many of the town’s white students are enrolled in private religious schools called yeshivas.

The bill enjoys broad support from education interest groups and on Wednesday won plaudits from the New Jersey School Boards Association, the New Jersey Education Association, the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, and the Education Law Center, among numerous others.

Not all of the bill’s supporters are completely satisfied with the legislation’s current state.

Sharon Krengel, policy and outreach director for the New Jersey Education Law Center, asked for the bill to be amended to include a $5 million appropriation to the division, require annual reports to the Legislature on steps lawmakers can take to desegregate schools, and establish an outreach and a public hearing program.

Gopal said Sen. Joe Cryan (D-Union), the bill’s prime sponsor, would welcome discussions with stakeholders about changes to the bill.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.