Advocates call on Legislature to desegregate N.J. schools

By: - March 24, 2022 7:32 am

The Joint Commission on the Public Schools met over Zoom to hear potential solutions to school segregation.

It could be months before a Superior Court judge decides whether New Jersey schools are unconstitutionally segregated, but state lawmakers are already hearing potential solutions to the problem from activists who want to revamp how the state educates its children. 

The Joint Commission on the Public Schools convened Wednesday to hear from school officials and activists — including some who are plaintiffs in the case against the state —  on how to properly integrate schools, the positive impact the change would have on education, and steps lawmakers can take without waiting for the case to work its way through the court system.

“What I really want to say today to all of you is, let’s not wait. The Legislature doesn’t need to wait — and frankly, should not wait — for a court order to begin serious and sustained work on an issue that’s so central to the right of our students to have a thorough and efficient education,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center. 

The committee meeting came nearly three weeks after oral arguments in a lawsuit alleging New Jersey is one of the most segregated states for Black and Latino students, as claimed in a 2017 study from the University of California, Los Angeles. 

Proposed solutions

Retired state Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein, who runs the New Jersey Coalition for Diverse and Inclusive Schools and organized the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said an integrated education is beneficial for all students regardless of race or background. He highlighted programs in other states allowing students in minority districts to transfer to other schools. 

The METCO choice program in Boston encourages students to attend schools in surrounding towns, moving students from urban districts to suburban districts. But he noted it can accept only 3,000 enrollees because Massachusetts legislators limited the program’s funds so it can’t expand. 

He also pointed to magnet schools, which Connecticut officials devised in response to a state Supreme Court decision in 1996. As a result of that decision, suburban students in Hartford attend urban school districts, where schools offer themed programs focusing on subjects like science or arts. 

“Those schools work if they’re well-designed and publicized properly. You can be assured that students will attend them even though it requires students to travel by bus,” Stein added. 

New Jersey could look at implementing similar programs, he said, encouraging lawmakers to provide more financial resources when the time comes. More funding would be needed in urban schools to ensure they can provide a “thorough and efficient education for the children who continue to be educated there,” the former justice said. 

Advocates expressed concern over the unintended consequences some of these solutions might have, no matter how well-intended. 

Sciarra specified charter schools and county vocational schools can exacerbate and perpetuate patterns of school segregation because they tend to reflect the districts they serve. The Rev. Willie Francois of the Mount Zion Baptist Church said these schools could be part of the solution if they’re not allowed to create new levels of exclusion.

Simply removing district boundaries will not accelerate desegregation of schools, but deepen the existing problems, Francois said.

“We have to avoid short-term quick fixes, especially costly expenditures in place of true inclusion. Separate is never equal. History has told us that,” he said.

Any solutions to school segregation must “do no harm” to low-income schools and urban districts, he added.

‘Separate but equal’?

The lawsuit contends the root of the de facto segregation is a lack of affordable housing outside of urban areas, and the state’s requirement that public school students attend the district of the town where they live. The state argues the U.C.L.A. study uses a small slice of demographic data, cultural diversity exists among students, and plaintiffs haven’t proven Black and Latino students attending majority-minority schools are getting an inferior education.

Lawrence Lustberg, attorney for the plaintiffs, during a recent court hearing said that last argument smacks of “separate but equal.” The decision is in the hands of Superior Court Justice Robert Loughy, who said he would release an opinion in “due time.”

Stein expects it to be months before there’s a ruling. He also believes the decision will be appealed up to the state Supreme Court, prolonging any potential changes ordered by the judge.

Lawmakers were receptive to the ideas proposed during Wednesday’s hearing, though Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Essex) warned implementing choice programs or magnet schools would be cumbersome in a state with over 600 school districts. 

Stein said New Jersey can learn from other programs in the northeast by buffing up financial resources. He said other remedies could be additional county or regional districts.

“It’s going to be a collaborative effort requiring the best, best advice we can get from experts all over the country,” he said.

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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.

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