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In what seems to be an odd contradiction, New Jersey’s schools are both more segregated and more diverse than they were five years ago, according to a new report. That’s because whites are no longer a majority in the public school system, representing just 45.3 percent of children.
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Close to a quarter of public school students attend classes in districts that are almost all white or at least 90 percent nonwhite, reported the Center for Diversity and Equality in Education. But there is good news on the flip side — about the same percentage (25 percent) of New Jersey schools have student populations that approximately match the state’s diverse racial and ethnic makeup.
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The problem that will not go away
New Jersey’s public school system continues to be among the most segregated in the nation, said Ryan Coughlan, a faculty member at CUNY’s Guttman Community College and co-author of the report, “The New Promise of School Integration and the Old Problem of Extreme Segregation: An Action Plan for New Jersey to Address Both.”
“It is deeply discouraging that New Jersey’s poor urban students of color are even more segregated now than they were when we wrote our 2013 report urging the state to take action,” Coughlan said.
The report issued earlier this week began as an update to a 2013 study of school segregation in the state. But Coughlan and co-author Paul Tractenberg, CDEE president and a professor emeritus of Rutgers Law School, saw an opportunity to examine segregation in multiple ways. That’s when they noted that a quarter of schools had populations of white, black, Hispanic, and Asian students similar to the state as a whole.
“These demographic changes mirror changes at the national level and have created important new opportunities for school integration in many school districts if they are cultivated and nourished,” Tractenberg said.
Expanding diversity in schools could yield many benefits. The report found a strong link between racial segregation and educational outcomes. As a rule, the more diverse school districts are, the better their educational outcomes as measured by proficiency rates on state tests, graduation and dropout rates and the proportion of graduates going to college. The opposite is also true; the more racially and economically isolated districts are, the worse their outcomes.
More than just race
Race is not the only factor in determining student performance. Socioeconomic status also plays at least as big a role, the report found. While Asian and white students make up only 55 percent of all students in the state, they represent 87 percent of students in low-poverty schools that tend to have among the best educational outcomes. Meanwhile, four out of five students in the highest-poverty schools where student performance tends to lag are black or Hispanic, although just two out of five students across the state are black or Hispanic.
In New Jersey, the most segregated schools tend to be clustered in urban areas, including Newark, Paterson, Trenton, and Camden. The report found that 7.8 percent of the state’s roughly 1.4 million students went to an “apartheid” school, where less than 1 percent of students were white. Another 13.5 percent went to schools where less than 10 percent of pupils were white. And 3.1 percent of students attended classes in schools where more than nine in 10 students were white. That last category, called white isolation schools, has been declining since 1990, when about a third of schools were predominantly white, even as those in apartheid and intensively segregated schools rose during the same period.
“We must recognize and act urgently to deal with the continuing, or even worsening, extreme segregation that exists in approximately 25 percent of our school districts,” the report states. “They are mostly urban districts where black and Hispanic students, many of them low income, go daily to intensely segregated or apartheid schools.”
The report found that charter schools, many of which have been billed as a way to provide students an alternative to poor-performing districts, may worsen school segregation, since almost 82 percent of charter-school students are in segregated schools.
Included in the report are rankings of districts by their segregation levels and diversity compared with the state. The data also placed each district in one of three categories with an eye toward potential actions to improve diversity.
The report includes s a detailed action plan designed to help the state move toward the ultimate goal of “true integration” of not just districts and schools, but also into classrooms, courses, and programs.
While the 2013 report’s recommendations went largely ignored, Coughlan noted that was a different administration that had different priorities.
“This is a very different governor and administration than what we had at that time,” Coughlan said. “I do think we are in a time and place where change can happen, but the governor needs to take the initiative.”
The report puts the onus on Gov. Phil Murphy to make integration a priority, calling on him to deliver “a clear, definitive and strong policy statement” in support of achieving residential and educational diversity wherever possible and as soon as possible. He should take other steps as well, including the creation of a blue-ribbon commission charged with recommending the best ways to achieve diversity. That commission should study a broad range of topics affecting segregation, including school district and municipal boundaries, state and local tax structure, residential segregation, availability of job, and public safety.
“There are a lot of creative approaches to take, using some carrots, the state might be able to convince districts to do this on their own,” Coughlan said. “A lot of it also involves shifting people’s attitudes a bit.”
Other recommendations include:
Additionally, the report includes specific and no doubt controversial recommendations for increasing the number of diverse districts. These include supporting the construction of affordable housing throughout the state, enforcing a 2007 mandate to require all districts to become K-12 but in a manner that increases diversity, and piloting countywide and other regional districts as a way to increase diversity. It also suggests that school choice and charter school programs be modified to require increased diversity be a priority.
In addition to data and recommendations, the report includes an interactive map that shows school-diversity rankings and categorizes districts by whether they are already diverse, are not diverse but are in a county that is or are not diverse, and are located in areas where there are few opportunities to change the racial and ethnic backgrounds of the student body.
“Many elements of this action plan, as the report explains, are neither easy nor likely to be fully implemented in the near term.” But even in segregated urban districts and nearly all-white districts “important steps can be taken to ameliorate the problem and bring at least some of the educational benefits of diversity to their students.”