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A Tale of Two Deeply Divided NJ Public School Systems

NJ's Most Segregated County

Essex County is also by far the state’s most segregated county. Its 21 school districts include four that are urban, desperately poor, and almost entirely populated by students of color; five that are relatively diverse, two (Montclair and South Orange-Maplewood) by conscious choice; and 12 that are overwhelmingly white and higher-income with virtually not a single low-income student.

These extraordinary disparities, and frightening isolation and separation, literally exist side by side. If ever there seemed to be a situation that met the New Jersey Supreme Court’s constitutional standard -- that schools have to be racially balanced “wherever feasible” -- Essex County seems to be it. And if Brown v. Board of Education and its implementation in the South established anything, as a matter of law, it was that politically and racially inspired opposition to a constitutional command could not succeed.

Now it’s time for us to decide. Do we stay with the status quo of two separate and unequal state systems of education, or, if we don’t, do we embrace a “radical” reform approach based on constitutional imperatives and the best available evidence or one that defies the constitution and the evidence?

These questions are too important to answer based on ideology or gut feelings. And they’re certainly too important for us to defer to untutored decisions by state political and education officials and to their top-down edicts.

We desperately need an informed and thoroughgoing public discussion, with all the stakeholders -- and that means all of us who live, work, and study in New Jersey -- given a full and fair opportunity to weigh in on this crucial question.

It’s long past time for us to figure out who we are and what kind of a state we want to live in.

Paul Tractenberg is Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor and Alfred C. Clapp Distinguished Public Service Professor at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, where he has been since 1970. In 1973, he founded, and for three years directed, the Education Law Center, which has represented the state’s 300,000 urban students in the landmark case of Abbott v. Burke. Professor Tractenberg established and now co-directs the Rutgers-Newark Institute on Education Law and Policy. He also co-directs the Newark Schools Research Collaborative.

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