Lawsuit alleges state laws at fault for school segregation

In what’s expected to be a long legal battle, a new coalition of civil rights groups, including parents and children, is suing the state over what they call de facto segregation in New Jersey’s public and charter schools.

“New Jersey has been complicit in the creation and persistence of school segregation because it requires that students attend public schools in the municipalities in which they live. As a result, New Jersey operates a system that knowingly separates black and Latino children by race and ethnicity and segregates white students in predominantly white districts,” said Ryan Haygood, president and CEO of New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

New Jersey is one of the only states in the country with a constitution explicitly banning public school segregation, yet it ranks the sixth most segregated in the nation for black students.

“This segregation comes from a long history of discrimination, from exclusionary zoning, which has created neighborhoods that are isolated by race, class and poverty,” said Elise Boddie, a professor at Rutgers University School of Law.

It means 46 percent of all black and Latino students across the state are attending schools where the population is 90 percent non-white, and statistics show 80 percent of those same kids come from low-income families. Sixty-four years after the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, the group called it one of the greatest civil rights struggles left unfinished in our time.

“The polarization that’s happening today, a lot of that is a symptom of this continued segregation, this continued division of people,” said Christian Estevez, president of the Latino Action Network.

“Data supports that students perform significantly better in integrated schools. African-American, Latino, and students living at or below the poverty line achieve higher test scores in integrated schools,” said Adrienne Sanders, first vice president of the NJ-NAACP.

To change this, the lawsuit is seeking to invalidate two laws: one requiring students attend school in the town where they live and the other requiring charter schools give admission preference to kids in their home districts.

“It’s not going to blow up the system, it’s going to knock down a barrier and then we’re going to have to work with the courts, or perhaps and hopefully the administration step by step,” said former state Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein.

Instead, potential recommendations include creating regional magnet schools with inter-district enrollment, regional choice, which matches students with preferred schools, and a voluntary transfer program. A spokesperson for the governor says he can’t comment on pending litigation, but is deeply committed in boosting diversity in our schools.

It’s uncertain how long this entire process will take. Once the state responds a trial will be scheduled, and if the courts invalidate these two laws, the state Education commissioner and governor will have three months from then to come up with a remediation plan.