TRENTON, NJ— Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration is facing a Friday deadline to respond to a lawsuit seeking to desegregate schools in cities like Newark, Camden, New Brunswick, as well as districts throughout the state with a large population of minority students.
The lawsuit, filed by New Jersey Coalition for Diverse and Inclusive Schools, claims that decades of residential segregation and state laws that requires students to attend the schools in the towns where they live has led to rampant racial segregation.
The coalition, led by former state Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein, comprises civil rights advocates, faith groups, parents and community leaders from across the state.
Filed in May, the suit calls for acting commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education Lamont Repollet to devise a remediation plan to address the issue of school segregation within an aggressive - and perhaps unrealistic - time period of three months.
“New Jersey occupies this very strange position, as a state, in that it has the strongest state law in the country that affirmatively requires racial balance in the schools, and yet it has one of the most segregated school systems in the country,” said Paul Tractenberg, a New Jersey Coalition for Diverse and Inclusive Schools board member.
The New Jersey constitution prohibits both "de jure" segregation, in which the state has a formal law requiring segregation, and "de facto" segregation, which is segregation through circumstance.
“Our public schools are more segregated than any state in the South,” said Anthony Campisi, a spokesperson for the coalition.
Campisi pointed to the battles in court over the Mount Laurel doctrine, which requires all municipalities to provide affordable housing, and state laws that require children to attend schools only in the municipalities in which they reside.
However, towns have been able to avoid affordable housing responsibilities through state policies, said Paul Jargowsky, director of the Center for Urban Research and Education at Rutgers University-Camden, leading to highly segregated towns, and as a result, highly segregated schools.
“We failed to address the issue of the underlying pattern of segregated communities, and so it comes back to let’s try to fix this at the school level,” Jargowsky said.
According to the lawsuit, almost 25 percent of the state’s black public school students attend schools that are 99 percent non-white; and another 25 percent attend schools that are more than 90 percent non-white. Almost 15 percent of the state’s Latino public school students attend schools that are 99 percent non-white; and 30 percent attend schools where the non-white enrollment is 90 percent or higher.
In the 2015-2016 school year, 18 of 24 schools in the Camden City School District had zero to 1 percent of white students; 33 of 65 Newark public schools had zero to 1 percent of white students.
The lawsuit proposes two main solutions to school segregation in New Jersey: allow parents to send their children to schools outside of their home municipality through a voluntary transfer program, and create new inter-district magnet schools statewide
Both potential solutions, the coalition argues, would greatly increase diversity in the state’s schools.
“We envision movement in multiple directions, also creating opportunities where people want to bring their kids in [to urban centers],” Campisi said.
VOLUNTARY TRANSFER PROGRAM
Bryan Morton, founder and executive director of Parents For Great Camden Schools, believes that a transfer program would have government funding follow the students, in which eligible families are well-informed about the program and one that has a streamlined enrollment system to allow schools on the receiving end to plan for any additional classroom needs.
“That’s a great option; families should be able to decide where they want to send their students,” Morton said.
He believes Camden parents would be willing to send their children to schools outside of the district for both educational opportunities and to thrive in a more diverse environment.
“There is a recognition on the part of parents that other districts are providing a better quality educational experience, and beyond education is also the culture and the climate within those schools,” Morton said. “The exposure to different cultures and different mindsets ... such an opportunity could truly lead to a well-rounded educational experience for a student.”
But some parents may not necessarily transfer their kids to other districts, said Wilhelmina Holder, the president of the Secondary Parent Council, a collaborative group that advocates for resources in the Newark school system.
Holder suspected that some children may convince their parents to stay in Newark so they could remain with their friends.
“It’s not that people are unhappy with the Newark Public Schools. What they’re unhappy about is being treated differently, not having the resources to support children’s abilities,” Holder said. She added that if the state’s school funding formula was reworked, fewer families may want to leave the Newark district.
There are parents who would take advantage of such a program, said Jargowsky, who is also a public policy professor.
However, he said, it could also prove difficult for parents who might be working more than one job to handle the logistics of not only getting their kids to schools outside of their district, but to also meet the deadlines of a potentially complicated application process and attend mandatory meetings.
“So most people do end up being in schools pretty close to their neighborhood, even when they have other options,” Jargowsky said.
In New Brunswick, school board president Dr. Dale Caldwell said the issue comes down to money. Currently, Caldwell said, school districts in rich and poor districts are not treated the same, and that, he said, must change.
"The state must fund more wraparound services for students from economically challenged households," said Caldwell, who has a doctorate in education. "New Brunswick needs significantly more funding from the state to provide the full range of services our students need to achieve their full potential," he said.
More than 36 percent of New Brunswick 57,000 residents live in poverty, according to U.S. Census figures.
Caldwell said research he completed for his academic studies identified a correlation between family income and standardized test results.
"This means that the economic status of a household has a lot to do with student academic performance," he said.
In New Brunswick schools, about 89 percent students are Hispanic, according to district figures, and about 9 percent of the students are African-American, with white students and other ethnic backgrounds accounting for the rest of the student body.
INTERDISTRICT MAGNET SCHOOLS
Having regionalized schools is one of the lawsuit’s proposed solutions to segregation. Students from all over Essex County already have the option to attend the two public county technology schools located in Newark.
The public Essex County technology schools are governed by a different school board than Newark’s public school system, which has five selective magnet high schools and comprehensive schools.
A recent Rutgers study found that about 63 percent of students at all Essex County vo-tech schools immediately went to college after graduating, which isn't as high as the city's selective public magnet schools. About 75 percent of the city's public magnet high school students immediately go to college after graduating, compared to about 40 percent of students at public comprehensive schools in Newark.
Morton, the advocate for Parents for Great Camden Schools, raised a concern about magnet schools as part of this lawsuit — would admission to these schools be fair?
“That’s where the difficulty comes in, how do you develop a mechanism that ensures that the most underserved has access,” asked Morton. To him, it comes down to access to information on the admissions process and deadline requirements and developing a system that identifies talented students early on.
“Camden just reinstituted its gifted and talented program, but there’s so many other places that lack a gifted and talented program,” Morton said.
Jargowsky said schools like a magnet school or other types of schools where parents have the opportunity to voluntary send their children could be a viable approach.
“But it does not address the heart of the issue, which is our segregated housing in neighborhoods,” Jargowski said.
A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Despite some questions and concerns about the potential remedies proposed by the lawsuit, most agree that something needs to be done about a problem persisting for decades.
“I think it’s a good lawsuit in that hopefully we’ll be able to address some of the underlying reasons that the lawsuit occurred, such as racism and institutional racism and biased practices that have happened to people of color,” Holder said.
Morton called the lawsuit commendable, and “a recognition of a long-held, open secret.”
Historically, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled in favor of arguments against desegregation or unequal treatment of students in urban districts, said Amy Newcombe, professor of law at Seton Hall University in South Orange, at the border of Newark.
Newcombe quickly cites four state Supreme Court decisions dating back to 1965 that supported the need for leveling the playing field in school districts, and ensuring diversified classes.
“(The court) has been consistent that a racial imbalance in not okay,” Newcombe said.
Similar battles, Newcombe said, have been fought in other states, including a case in Hartford, Conn., that resulted in a 1996 state Supreme Court ruling to desegregate schools in that city.
With the deadline for Murphy's response looming for this court case, his office has been quiet on the subject.
A spokesperson for the governor’s office in May told news outlets that “we must combat the deeply rooted problem of segregation.” For this story, Murphy’s office forwarded TAPinto’s request for comment to the state Attorney General’s office, which declined to comment..
“We’re hopeful that the governor will follow-up on the supportive statement that he issued when we filed our lawsuit with real, concrete action,” said Campisi.
Tractenberg, who is also a Professor of Law Emeritus Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor, said the Murphy administration’s answer to the lawsuit should tell the public a lot about whether or not it's serious about addressing the problem.
“I hope the Murphy administration, the commissioner of education, Repollet and the attorney general rise to the challenge and show that this is a progressive administration that cares about kids, and not one that curls up into a ball and tries to do as little as possible," he said.