Does NJ Have Model in Place to Fix Schools Segregation?

Under state choice program, roughly 5,000 students already go to schools in districts other than their own
Former state Education Commissioner David Hespe

Could New Jersey have an answer to its school-segregation patterns already in place? Those behind an existing school-choice program are making that case, led by a prominent figure in state educational circles.

The association representing more than 100 districts in the state’s Inter-district Public School Choice Program have filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the potentially landmark challenge to the lack of diversity in New Jersey schools now before state Superior Court.

Launched in 1997, the program now has roughly 5,000 students crossing district lines voluntarily to attend public schools other than their own, in 124 districts across the state that have agreed to participate.

Now, the association has argued in its brief filed with the court that the program provides a model for a voluntary remedy. And it has a well-known lawyer to represent that point of view: former state Education Commissioner David Hespe.

“That’s the conversation now,” Hespe said Tuesday in an interview: “Can the program be redesigned as a tool for desegregation? I’d say the answer is yes.”

It’s an interesting element to a case that could have deep ramifications statewide. The Latino Action Network and other advocacy groups in 2018 sued the state over what it calls the ingrained segregation of students by race in New Jersey’s public schools.

Segregation pervasive in NJ schools

New Jersey’s schools are considered among the most segregated in the country, largely due to the de facto segregation of housing patterns and laws requiring students to attend schools in their own cities and towns. For instance, a quarter of all students attend schools that are either at least 90% white or 90% nonwhite. More than 100 districts are 90% or more nonwhite.

Citing the educational and social benefits of more diverse enrollments, the lawsuit is asking the state to eliminate those restrictions and proactively push, if not require, a model that would bring more diversity across the state.

After months of closed-door talks, the case went before state Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson for the first time earlier this month with initial oral arguments.

The interdistrict-choice association wants a place at that table, and Hespe said it has a good case to make. The program now works on an entirely voluntary basis, where both students and districts choose to take part through a tightly regulated process. But the program has also languished of late, suffering from static funding from the state.

While Hespe said the choice program was never designed to be a tool of desegregation, his brief outlines a handful of participating districts that have seen greater diversity in their enrollments.

In a survey of districts, it reads, “18 of the responding choice schools that were mostly white were able to increase diversity by attracting minority populations through programs such as Upper Freehold’s Academies programs, Manchester Regional’s technical schools, Sterling High’s ROTC and technical programs, and Collingswood’s Media program.”

And, he said, with the proper funding and incentives, it could serve that purpose as well.

“The thought is if it could be repurposed and targeted, you could see those success stories multiply,” said Hespe, who served more than four years as commissioner under former Govs. Christine Whitman and Chris Christie.

“The plaintiffs themselves in their own briefs laid out how the expansion of school choice could be an initial starting point,” he added.

Hoping parents choose diversity

The lead attorney for the plaintiffs has long maintained that school-choice programs are a potential solution at the center of their complaint. The brief filed in support of the complaint specifically cites the school-choice program, as well as existing vocational schools that serve students countywide as models for possible remedies.

“The hope is that kids and their families would opt for a more diverse education, and the way to attract them is through all the various choice programs that are available,” said attorney Lawrence Lustberg, who represented the plaintiffs before Jacobson earlier this month.

All of this may be a little premature, as the next steps before Jacobson and the court are further exchange of testimony and evidence around the question of who or what is liable for the state’s patterns of school segregation. At Jacobson’s request, every district in the state is soon to be formally asked whether it wants to weigh in as well.

The question of possible remedies would come after that phase, and Jacobson at the oral arguments implored the parties to continue negotiating around possible solutions. Earlier settlement talks broke down.

And Hespe himself acknowledged this is hardly an easy puzzle to solve, having himself sat as state commissioner over two administrations and acknowledging the imbalances from segregation have only worsened.

“It’s got to start somewhere,” he said. “This doesn’t need to be hundreds of thousands of students participating from Day One. . . Right now, we haven’t even started down that road.”