N.J.’s school segregation lawsuit returns to court this week

By: - March 2, 2022 7:09 am

(Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

A lawsuit hinging on a study that found New Jersey schools are some of the most segregated in the country will return to the courtroom this week, with plaintiffs hoping for a major shift in state policies regulating where children attend school.

The lawsuit claims New Jersey’s requirement that public school students attend schools in the towns where they live — towns that in some cases have high levels of racial isolation — results in schools that are also heavily segregated, with many overwhelmingly white or overwhelmingly non-white.

In Paterson, a city that is 60% Hispanic, more than 68% of public school students are Hispanic, 22% are Black, 6% are Asian, and about 5% are white. In West Milford, a town about 30 miles north that is more than 90% white, less than 15% of students are Black, Asian, or Hispanic, according to the Department of Education.

The lawsuit was sparked after a 2017 UCLA study found “severe segregation” in schools has hurt young Black and Latino students for decades, denying them opportunities offered in schools serving mostly white students. Without change, the study warns, schools are headed for a “segregated future” with “severe racial stratification and division.”

The Rev. Sammy Arroyo, an advocate who works closely with plaintiffs in the suit, said the study “opened my eyes.”

“We tend to talk a lot about New Jersey being a diverse state, and that’s true, but at the same time, we’re heavily segregated. Once I started digging a little more, I realized I have a problem — my kids that are growing up in a heavily segregated school system,” Arroyo said.

The suit was filed in 2018 by a coalition of civil rights and social justice organizations, including Latino Action Network, the New Jersey chapter of the NAACP, the United Methodist Church, and nine students. The state of New Jersey, state Board of Education, and the education commissioner are named as defendants.

After years of delays, a hearing is scheduled for Thursday at state Superior Court in Mercer County that could precede a trial.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein launched the legal fight on behalf of the New Jersey Coalition for Diverse and Inclusive Schools, a nonprofit representing more than 20 organizations seeking to change the structure of New Jersey’s schools.

“It’s very complicated. You can’t just push a button. You have to figure out a new way to determine where children in urban districts will go to school, what direction children in the suburbs will go,” Stein said in a phone interview. 

Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit. When it was filed in 2018, a spokesperson told NJ.com the governor “believes that we must combat the deeply rooted problem of segregation.”

Criticizing New Jersey’s ‘zip code policy’

Currently, a “zip code policy” is in place requiring New Jersey public school students to attend the schools within the municipality where they live, Stein explained.

In the 674 public school districts serving 1.3 million students, about 585,000 Black and Latino students attend public schools where the student population is more than 75% non-white, the suit says, citing 2017 data. Over half of those students attend schools that are more than 90% non-white.

The concentration of Black and Latino students in certain schools — the lawsuit highlights Newark, Camden, and Paterson schools — means white students are predominately enrolled with other white students, according to the filing.

We’re cautiously optimistic that after the judge reads our argument and our extensive briefs, the judge will agree with us that New Jersey schools are unconstitutionally segregated. We think the chances are strong because the evidence is overwhelming from the state’s own website. It’s devastating.

– Retired state Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein

State officials have known about New Jersey’s extreme school segregation for over half a century, but have not enacted policies to improve the de facto segregation, the suit claims, citing state Department of Education data.

Stein filed the lawsuit on the 64th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that after the judge reads our argument and our extensive briefs, the judge will agree with us that New Jersey schools are unconstitutionally segregated,” Stein said. “We think the chances are strong because the evidence is overwhelming from the state’s own website. It’s devastating.”

In legal filings, attorneys for the state have argued the plaintiffs’ arguments are “laudable” but wrong.

“Rather than addressing the particular circumstances present in any one school or district, plaintiffs fashioned a statewide challenge based entirely on a limited set of data points relating to a limited number of school districts at a discrete point in time,” reads a December motion on behalf of the state asking for the case to be dismissed. “Implicit in this argument is the suggestion that any apparent disproportion in the racial or socioeconomic composition of a small number of public school districts is sufficient, on its own, to find that the state has violated the constitution across the entire state.”

Why advocates seek change

Arroyo’s children attend school in East Windsor, a district he said is a diverse mix of mostly Latino, white, and Asian students. They benefit from socializing and learning with students of different backgrounds, something that is fundamental to success in the “real world,” he said.

According to state data, nearly 41% of East Windsor students are Latino, 30% are white, 17% are Asian, and about 9% are Black. More than a third of students are from economically disadvantaged households.

“Learning how to live together, work together, collaborate, it’s one of the most important things to learn,” he said. “It’s going to take time. There’s going to be a lot of lifting up of the groups that have been marginalized and being able to see themselves in a system that exists for them.”

It’s not just race that divides schools, he added, but income and cultural experiences as well. He also noted the high number of white teachers teaching students of color. In his children’s district, 83% of teachers are white.

The lawsuit lays out some solutions the state could take. One of them is magnet schools, which would be open to students from different towns.

Arroyo noted a Connecticut Supreme Court from 1996 that determined Hartford’s schools were deeply segregated. In January, a judge ordered Connecticut education officials to make more magnet school seats available to Hartford students, increase funding for those schools, and construct new facilities, NBC Connecticut reported.

Magnet schools reveal the “beneficial effects of diverse schools in the educational achievement of low-income Black and Latino students,” the New Jersey complaint states.

An inter-district desegregation transfer plan — allowing Black and Latino students to attend schools outside their hometowns — would also help equalize demographics within schools by relocating thousands of students, the plaintiffs say in the lawsuit. Similar policies have been implemented in Boston, Minneapolis, and St. Louis.

Removing the zip code policy would take away the biggest obstacle to fixing this problem in New Jersey, the plaintiffs say.

Arroyo is hopeful the judge overseeing the case will decide the state has to lay out a plan to integrate schools. But he hears worries from his community whether this much effort will lead to any change.

“There’s obviously fears this will not go anywhere, and that this will bring back some trauma of being marginalized,” he said. “We want to help them understand that even if it’s painful now, we’re thinking about how to help the next generation.”


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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.