Court considers potentially historic NJ school segregation case

“The main reason we are where we are is because we have very high housing segregation,” said Elise Boddie, a law professor at Rutgers Law School and founder of The Inclusion Project at Rutgers. “Because we have a state law that more or less requires students to attend the school where they live, these systems of residential segregation apply to our school system.”

Education equity groups have long argued in court — and successfully — that decades of exclusionary zoning and discriminatory housing policies have created pockets of concentrated poverty in cities that have collapsed under the mass migration of whites to the suburbs.

“White people were allowed to go up, weren’t they? And move. And people of color have been trapped within those borders and then penalized for it for generations,” said Christian Estevez, president of the Latino Action Network, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

He said that while addressing housing disparities remains important, “we can’t wait for New Jersey to integrate its communities in order to help these children.”

Murphy, a Democrat, hasn’t spoken about the case recently, but during a debate during his re-election campaign last year, he said the state attorney general’s office is fighting the lawsuit on a “technical aspect”, because the State must defend itself.

“The bigger question is whether we accept that the legacy of slavery still exists in our state today and the answer is overwhelmingly yes,” Murphy said onstage last October.

In the state’s latest briefs filed in court, the AG’s office said the plaintiffs did not define what constitutes segregation, although they do not dispute the numbers. They wrote that the proposed remedies would “erase” the state’s entire public school system, and went on to say that the system would have to be “razed” and “rebuilt brick by brick” if the court ordered them to remedy the problem.

The plaintiffs offer several solutions such as consolidating districts to give parents regional school choices or creating more magnet schools that draw from different cities.

NJ “turned its back” on urban schools

Stein says that before World War II, cities across the state had the best schools: Newark, Jersey City, Trenton, Elizabeth, Camden and New Brunswick.

But after the war, as whites began to leave the cities, blacks were barred from buying homes in some communities or qualifying for federally backed mortgages. It shaped what New Jersey neighborhoods and schools looked like.

“Cities lost their tax base and the state continued to fund public schools from local taxes. With the result that cities could no longer afford their great teachers to maintain their good schools and good facilities,” Stein said. “Our state had turned its back on urban school districts.”

Stein was also behind one of New Jersey’s most lauded and important court decisions on educational fairness: Abbott v. Burke. In a series of decisions beginning in 1985, the state Supreme Court ruled that poorer districts were entitled to the same per-student funding as wealthier districts that had more money to fund their schools through taxes. higher land.

The series of Abbott decisions have become the central tenet of the state’s school funding formula, which directs additional state assistance to low-income urban districts that often educate more children in need of a free or reduced lunch, with special needs or who do not speak English.

But Stein said that, as transformational as those decisions were, they “didn’t go far enough.”

He said no one mentioned the racial makeup of urban schools at the time.

According to the current lawsuit, schools in large cities are “intensely segregated” and enroll massively students living in poverty. At least four school districts in Essex County, East Orange, Irvington, Newark and Orange were at least 90% non-white in the 2016-17 school year. In Passaic County, Passaic, Paterson and Prospect Park were also at least 90% non-white.

“They want to take their marbles and go home”

The lawsuit could have implications for school districts across the state. Consider the circumstances in these South Jersey communities.

Pleasantville High School is a few miles inland from Atlantic City. The school enrolls 900 students, mostly black and Latino, and although students from the nearby predominantly white town of Absecon also populate the campus, the high school remains 1% white.

In 2019, Absecon asked the state to end its agreement with Pleasantville and send its children to another district. School officials have raised concerns about low college attendance rates, educational opportunities, and the safety of Pleasantville.

But Pleasantville School Board President Jerome Page says he doesn’t want the state to end its relationship with Absecon. If so, the high school will be 100% non-white.

“We’re pretty much apart now, but we’re just not 100%,” Page said. “I don’t want to reach 100%.”

Pleasantville Schools is one of the few districts that have intervened in the segregation lawsuit as they fight to maintain their relationship with Absecon Schools. Absecon said he sends four to six children to Pleasantville High School each year; Pleasantville put that number at 10.

“It’s like they want to take their marbles and go home, but wait a minute, if you bring your marbles, we all have something to play for,” Page said.

But the desire to break away from Pleasantville has existed at Absecon for years. Some Absecon families move out of town so their children can attend other high schools or choose to pay for a private school.

But Absecon Superintendent Daniel Dooley said not all families can afford schools to send their children to. That’s why the district’s petition to end its relationship with Pleasantville, he said, is also about ensuring fairness for its students.

“Why don’t they have the same options as upper middle class or middle class kids in Absecon who can choose where they want to go to high school which will determine the opportunity and the future they have ?” he said.

While Absecon is 71% white, this is the first year that schools in the municipality have actually been majority non-white.

Reverend Willie Francois of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville said he understands the concerns of Absecon’s parents – families in Pleasantville have them too.

“The state needs to be compelled to look at this and say, we owe it to the students of Pleasantville, to come up with a regional approach that taps into resources in the region that will benefit every child,” he said.

Dooley said the case of school segregation is a different problem — like trying to make “a square peg fit into a round hole.”

He said that risked oversimplifying the very real concerns of parents – and the solutions available to them now. He would be open to a regional plan, but that’s something the state would have to allow. For now, he’s thinking of his roughly 100 eighth-graders trying to figure out where to go to high school.

“The Pleasantville School District will be no better or worse than a district with or without Absecon students,” he said. “The fear of Absecon residents is that statistically they are outperformed by nearly every other school district in the state.”

In an after-school study room at Pleasantville High School, Page told students what the stakes were as the state settled Absecon’s motion and a judge prepared to hear oral arguments in the school segregation case.

“There should be a white boy, a white girl sitting right next to you and learning what they’re going through. But guess what? They also learn what you are going through. They learn who you are,” he said. “And without that, it’s just us.”

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