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Opinion: Segregation Survives in New Jersey

Examining the parallels between education of children of color and education of children with disabilities.

The New Jersey Legislature’s passage of a 2 percent cap on increases in school budgets has provoked a maelstrom of protest and praise. One constant, though, is the concern among educators, parents and advocates regarding the lack of exemptions for special education funding, a robust driver of school costs.

A major factor in the high cost of educating children with special needs is that our state’s fragmentation into 591 school districts hinders efforts to create efficient in-district programming and forces local districts to rely on out-of-district placements.

According to the New Jersey Council of Developmental Disabilities report, “Where Are We Now? Still Segregated in New Jersey,” the national average for children placed in separate facilities is 2.9 percent. But in the Garden State, we segregate 8.8 percent of our children with disabilities in out-of-district placements.

At least we’re consistent. In fact, our segregation of children with disabilities mirrors our segregation of poor children. Not only do we outpace the rest of the nation in the rate that we out-source the education of special-needs children, but we also segregate our poor children at a rate that exceeds that of most of America. New Jersey has the fifth-most segregated public school system in the country for black kids (over half of whom attend schools that enroll from 90 percent to 100 percent minority students), and the fourth-most segregated school system for Hispanic kids (42 percent of whom attend schools that enroll 90 percent to 100 percent minority students).

There are, indeed, some fascinating parallels between the education of children of color and the education of children with disabilities. Indeed, the Disability Rights movement modeled itself after the Civil Rights Movement. Just as Brown v. Board of Education overturned a culture of “separate but equal” access to education in 1954, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1975 mandated that every child with a disability be provided with a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment.

Analogies abound between children denied educational access for reasons of disability and children denied educational access for reasons of color. But New Jersey takes it to a whole new level. In fact, our conflation of poverty and disability traps some of our neediest children beneath a ceiling that assumes limitation and dependence. Accommodations like early intervention, free preschool, and summer programming are entirely appropriate for children from impoverished backgrounds and children with developmental disabilities.

But here’s the difference: The educational effects of poverty can be ameliorated, while the educational effects of serious disabilities are lifelong. In New Jersey, we make no distinction. The result is a public school system that traps cognitively typical children, who happen to be poor and/or minority, in an environment that assumes atypical academic achievement.

Here’s an example: Children with multiple disabilities are, quite reasonably, not expected to pass New Jersey’s qualifying test for a high school diploma, the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA). But they may instead take an Alternate Proficiency Assessment. (Not enough of them, but that’s another column.)

Children in our poorest urban districts -- which are, interestingly, labeled “special needs districts” by the State -- are (mostly) not expected to pass the HSPA but instead take, as of this year, the far more forgiving Alternative High School Assessment. For instance, last year at Camden High, only 25 percent of high school students earned a diploma through the traditional HSPA. Last year at Cherry Hill East High School, also in Camden County but richer and whiter, 97.9 percent passed the HSPA.

One could argue that we relegate our poorest children to a free appropriate education in the most restrictive environment, a condition that would violate the federal law for children with disabilities. According to Realize the Dream, an education reform organization, New Jersey's white students get:

  • 2.8 times the opportunity of black and Hispanic students to be in Gifted/Talented programs
  • 4.4 times the opportunity of black and Hispanic students to be in math AP courses
  • 4.5 times the opportunity of black and Hispanic students to be in science AP courses

This lack of opportunity wouldn’t pass muster in a New Jersey courtroom overseen by an administrative law judge evaluating a school district’s adherence to disability law, but it passes muster every day in Newark, Camden, Jersey City and Trenton. Until New Jersey finds a way to break down district boundaries and expand school choice, poor children will be trapped in chronically failing schools within a system complicit in fostering a separate and unequal education.

Laura Waters has been president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County for six years. She also blogs about New Jersey education policy and politics at NJLeftBehind.com. A former instructor at SUNY Binghamton in a program that served educationally disadvantaged students from New York's inner cities, she holds a Ph.D. in early American literature from Binghamton.

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