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A Tale of Two Deeply Divided NJ Public School Systems

This extreme and longstanding segregation also defies solid education research that demonstrates students of color in racially and socioeconomically diverse schools perform better academically and white students perform no worse, and they all learn to live with one another. Almost 50 years ago, in a seminal decision breaking down a major barrier to racially balanced schools -- the de jure/de facto distinction -- a New Jersey Supreme Court justice wrote that children need to start learning to live together as early as possible.

New Jersey’s extreme school segregation also works against our collective economic and social self-interest. As we head inexorably toward being a state that is “majority-minority” -- our schools are almost there already, the notion that we can largely write off poor children of color by isolating them in our uniformly poor and often dysfunctional cities should be unthinkable.

Finally common decency and morality -- whether based on religious or secular humanistic values -- should dictate that we act to dismantle this dual -- dare I say “apartheid” -- education system.

But beyond all of these important, big picture issues of law, pragmatics, enlightened self-interest and morality, there is the reality on the ground, a reality most of us see far too seldom if at all. There are fellow citizens of New Jersey trapped in dead-end, desperate lives where they feel as if they have no say over their own lives or the lives of their children, where they get no respect or recognition from those who could improve their circumstances.

Insights Into Isolation

Former New Jersey Chief Justice Robert Wilentz described the problem that isolation poses for all of us with great insight and power in 1990, almost 14 years ago, in one of the first landmark decisions of Abbott v. Burke:

"In addition to the impact of the constitutional failure on our economy, we noted the unmistakable further impact of the fact that soon one-third of our citizens will be black or Hispanic, many of them undereducated, isolated in a separate culture, affected by despair, sometimes bitterness and hostility, constituting a large part of society that is disintegrating, which disintegration will inevitably affect the rest of society. We noted that '(e)veryone's future is at stake, and not just the poor's. Certainly the urban poor need more than education, but it is hard to believe that their isolation and society's division can be reversed without it.'"

Our ultimate constitutional focus, however, must remain on the students:

"This record proves what all suspect: that if the children of poorer districts went to school today in richer ones, educationally they would be a lot better off. Everything in this record confirms what we know: they need that advantage much more than the other children. And what everyone knows is that -- as children -- the only reason they do not get that advantage is that they were born in a poor district. For while we have underlined the impact of the constitutional deficiency on our state, its impact on these children is far more important. They face, through no fault of their own, a life of poverty and isolation that most of us cannot begin to understand or appreciate.

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