Can the New Governor Help Close the Racial Divide in NJ’s Schools?

John Mooney | December 28, 2017 | Winter 2017
It will take political will and more to address the imbalances that make New Jersey’s education system one of the most segregated in the country

holiday reading for governor
Education will surely be high on the list of priorities for Phil Murphy when he takes office on January 16, given that he has been outspoken on everything from school funding to charters to student testing.

Needless to say, he has promised changes to all three.

But one of New Jersey’s most intractable school challenges will be far more difficult to meet: school segregation. Murphy has called it wrong and pledged at least some better coordination and study of past efforts, but there have been few pledges of significant change to break up the racial disparities that mark New Jersey public education.

If Murphy wants to assess a study, he could do far worse than reviewing this sobering one from Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. Orfield has been tracking school segregation nationwide for more than two decades and has found New Jersey is among the nation’s guiltiest in its stark disparities of where students of different races go to schools.

Orfield explains that the reasons are complex, from the housing patterns in the state to a multitude of districts that serve their own, to the dearth of efforts to address the chasms.

But even in a state where segregation is prohibited by its constitution, the results as laid out in the report are hard to dispute. For example, a quarter of New Jersey’s black students attend schools with virtually no white students. Conversely, just a quarter of white students attend a school with a significant share of black or Hispanic students

The report also looks at the racial disparities in two areas that New Jersey has been a national leader, but not so much when it comes to segregation: charter schools and preschools.

The answer to all this is just as complex, of course, and Orfield lays out some possibilities. But short of a political remedy from the new governor and Legislature, 2018 may end up a year when the courts play a more prominent role as well.

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