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A Tale of Two Deeply Divided NJ Public School Systems

The state is home to one school system that is urban and populated by poor students of color; another, suburban and populated by well-to-do white students

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Professor Paul Tractenberg.

In October, a report was released about racial segregation in New Jersey schools, jointly written by the Institute on Law and Policy at Rutgers-Newark and the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. The findings were sobering, even for a state that has long been home to some of the most segregated schools in the country.

As we near the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board desegregation ruling, one of the chief authors of the report, Rutgers Law School professor Paul Tractenberg, discusses some of its findings and some possible remedies as New Jersey moves into 2014.

Despite a well-funded and politically influential campaign to label New Jersey public schools as expensive failures, on average they actually perform very well in comparison to other states’ systems. The deep and distressing problems become apparent only when one goes beneath the averages. Then, what emerge are two fundamentally different educational systems.

One, the predominantly white, well-to-do and suburban system, performs at relatively high levels, graduating and sending on to higher education most of its students. The other, the overwhelmingly black, Latino, and poor urban system, struggles to achieve basic literacy and numeracy for its students, to close pernicious achievement gaps, and to graduate a representative share of its students.

These differences have been mitigated to a degree by Abbott v. Burke’s enormous infusion of state dollars into the poor urban districts, and some poor urban districts like Union City have been able to effect dramatic improvements. But neither Abbott nor any other state action has done anything to change the underlying demographics.

These circumstances are dramatically documented in two recent jointly prepared and jointly released reports of the Institute on Education Law and Policy at Rutgers-Newark (IELP) and the Civil Rights Project at UCLA (CRP).

The UCLA report, an update of prior CRP reports about New Jersey school segregation, provides the big picture. The Rutgers-Newark report zeroes in on two of the CRP segregation categories -- “apartheid schools” with 1 percent or fewer white students and “intensely segregated schools” with 10 percent or fewer white students -- and found that they were primarily phenomena of New Jersey’s old-line urban school districts, the very districts whose students were the plaintiffs in the Abbott litigation. Because New Jersey is such a compact and densely populated state, virtually all of those urban districts are ringed by wealthier, whiter suburban districts, many of which could be considered “reverse segregated” -- having virtually no black or Latino or poor students.

The Extent of the Problem

To provide a more concrete picture of the dimensions of New Jersey’s segregation problem, in 2010, 26 percent of all black students and almost 13 percent of the rapidly growing Latino population attended apartheid schools and another 21.4 percent and 29.2 percent, respectively, were in intensely segregated schools. That means almost half of all black students and more than 40 percent of all Latino students in New Jersey attend schools that are overwhelmingly segregated.

Compounding the problem is that the schools those students attend are doubly segregated because a majority, often an overwhelming majority, of the students are low-income. Extreme racial and socioeconomic isolation conspires to dramatically reduce the prospects of educational success. And we have created that situation over decades and stubbornly refuse to alleviate it.

This situation is distressing on many levels. It offends New Jersey’s uniquely strong state constitutional mandate that schools be racially balanced wherever feasible. That command comes not only from the constitution’s provision explicitly barring segregation in the public schools, but also from a 1971 state Supreme Court interpretation of the “thorough and efficient” education clause. If students could feasibly be in racially balanced schools and are not, their right to a thorough and efficient education is being thwarted.

This situation also significantly undermines New Jersey’s extraordinary effort to provide state education aid to poor urban school districts in amounts sufficient to make it possible for those districts to provide their low-income students of color with a high-quality education.

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