Morristown, NJ

Lawsuit Battles Segregation in NJ Schools

Morristown Minute

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Morristown Minute

An NJ lawsuit, originally filed in 2018, went back to court on January 22nd battling segregation in New Jersey Schools.

A November 2017 study from UCLA found that New Jersey schools had “severe segregation of black and Hispanic students” and faced a future of “severe racial stratification and division.”

A lawsuit, filed in May of 2018 aimed to tackle the issue of segregated NJ schools, however, delays and legal challenges pushed off court proceedings until this month, January 22, 2022.

The lawsuit calls for a major change to how racial imbalance is handled in the classroom, and results from the case could have a major impact on where NJ students attend schools.

New Jersey, with the best public schools in the nation, is known for its localized approach to school districts. This means most students in public schools attend the school closest to their home.

Freehold Borough School District has a population of 18% white students while 80% are black or Hispanic. Freehold Township, right next to the borough, has a population of 75% white students while less than 15% are black or Hispanic.

The racial divide like that described above is not unusual between New Jersey School Districts. Often schools in urban communities have a higher population of black and Hispanic students while schools in suburban communities tend to be predominantly white.

History (and current trends) shows us that schools in urban areas with high minority populations receive significantly less funding than suburban school districts.

In the last 20 years, New Jersey schools went from 66% white to 46% due to general enrollment increases. However, individual school districts still show uneven enrollment between suburban and urban districts.

In Ocean County, only three school districts are less than 75% white. Continually, in Monmouth County school districts are on average over 70% white.

Meanwhile, in Mercer County, most public schools are predominantly non-white. Trenton schools are less than 2% white and Hudson County and surrounding urban districts are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic.

Over 275,000 black and Latino students in New Jersey attend a public school that is more than 90% non-white.

The lawsuit filed nearly four years ago in a state superior court in Mercer County faced many delays in court proceedings and only recently found its way back to a New Jersey court.

Plaintiff attorneys claim that Governor Murphy and the state chose to fight the desegregation effort rather than recognize and remedy the systematic oppression.

NJ state attorneys argue that "de facto" segregation is mostly a housing issue and the claims do not necessitate the state to take action to remedy the inequality. Attorney’s claim that instead of focusing on the problem of segregation at the district level, where it is most prevalent, the plaintiffs filed a statewide lawsuit based on data from a small number of districts over a discrete period of time.

The lawsuit was filed by the Latino Action Network, the NJ NAACP, the Urban League of Essex County, and nine student minors.

The defendants named include the state of New Jersey, NJ State Department of Education, and education commissioner Lamont Repollet.

The Murphy administration has sought to delay proceedings, first delaying preliminary hearings and then stretching the discovery process out more than a year. Discovery concluded in November of 2021, and a court hearing on the motion for summary judgment was finally held on January 22, 2022.

Plaintiffs acknowledge that the issue of this de facto segregation stems from the first housing expansion of New Jersey post-WWII. 

Post-WWII the growth of suburbs drove many white families out of cities and urban communities while exclusionary zoning practices and racist ‘redlining’ forced many minority households to remain in cities. Historically, districts in urban areas receive less support from the state than suburban school districts.

Schools with predominantly minority populations continually face economic, political, and social oppression on an institutional level. 

Currently, residency laws mandate that students attend the public school nearest their home. However, possible solutions to battle the severe segregation of NJ schools include proposals to merge schools and districts, move funding towards less supported communities, alter the use of vocational schools, and/or mix up regionalization lines.

The results of this important case could lead to a significant change in where New Jersey students attend school.

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