N.J. school segegration case in judge’s hands after hearing

By: - March 3, 2022 7:08 pm

(Edwin J. Torres/Governor’s Office).

A potentially historic case that could determine whether New Jersey’s schools are unconstitutionally segregated now lies in the hands of Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy, who declined to make a decision Thursday after hearing nearly three hours of arguments.

Lawyers focused on a motion filed by plaintiffs requesting Lougy decide schools are unconstitutionally segregated, rather than sending the case to a trial. The hearing in Mercer County, conducted via Zoom and live-streamed, was marred by technical difficulties for nearly an hour.

Lougy said he will issue a written ruling “in due course.” 

Plaintiffs in the case, filed in May 2018, include Latino Action Network, the New Jersey chapter of the NAACP, the United Methodist Church, and nine students. They allege New Jersey’s system of sending public school students to schools in the municipality where they live has resulted in de facto segregation because of how racially isolated many of the state’s towns are.

“This case is about two things: It’s about racial justice in a state that congratulates itself on being fair … but is in fact, one of the worst in the nation when it comes to segregation of public schools,” said attorney Lawrence Lustberg, representing the plaintiffs. “And more than anything else, more than anything, it’s about the children.”

The case was sparked by a 2017 UCLA study that found New Jersey schools are the sixth-most segregated in the country. The plaintiffs argue New Jersey officials have long ignored this problem and it’s their job to fix it.

At one point Lustberg showed a presentation with statistics highlighting the demographics of some of New Jersey’s school districts. More than 46% of all Black and Latino students attend schools that are more than 90% non-white, while 40% of white students attend schools that are predominately white, he said. 

“These numbers make our case. Give people a choice and make opportunities for children to cross district lines to gain a better educational perspective,” he said to Lougy.

Lustberg invoked Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, his voice cracking as he reminded the court King wished to see his children live in a world where they are not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. 

The defendants are the state of New Jersey, the state Department of Education, and the education commissioner. Deputy Attorney General Christopher Weber argued on the state’s behalf, claiming the plaintiffs haven’t proved that fixing the problems they’ve cited falls to the state.

He noted the demographic data Lustberg highlighted largely focuses on 23 school districts — New Jersey has over 600 — and argued experts can’t agree on one definition of segregation.

“To put it plainly, the plaintiffs want to leave the courtroom today with an order holding the state liable for multiple constitutional and statutory violations without actually having to participate in the arduous process of examining the complexities of providing a thorough and efficient education … in a widely diverse state such as New Jersey,” Weber said.

Weber said plaintiffs should provide a specific remedy to the problem. The complaint suggests allowing students to attend schools outside their hometowns would help desegregate schools.

Lustberg said Thursday a solution will come only after a “long and difficult and complicated remedial stage.”

Whether charter schools are part of the solution — or contribute to the problems cited by the plaintiffs — is another major argument at the heart of the case. The complaint says because charter schools are present largely in New Jersey’s urban districts and give priority to students who live nearby, they aren’t a solution to the segregation issue. 

Attorney Lisa Scruggs, arguing on behalf of the New Jersey Public Charter School Association, said charter schools are not exacerbating segregation. She questioned the “quality and reliability of the data” provided by the plaintiffs. 

“The experts disagree about what is the data that is sufficient to demonstrate a level of segregation that would be deemed unconstitutional to the court,” she said. 

The Rev. Sammy Arroyo of the United Methodist Church, an advocate for the plaintiffs, said in an interview after the hearing he’s confident the judge will rule the state needs to implement a remedy after seeing Lustberg speak from “his mind and his heart.” Arroyo criticized the state’s case as reminiscent of arguments made in favor of segregation in the mid-20th Century.

“They don’t use this 1950s language of ‘separate but equal,’ but that’s what I believe their argument is. Even if the kids are separate, as long as they’re getting the best education they can get,” he said. “But we know what that actually is — separate but equal — and I can’t believe they’re arguing this.”


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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.