Amid court battle, N.J. lawmakers consider a different way to pursue school integration

Students sit cross-legged on wood floors.
A new bill, which recently cleared the senate education committee, would create a division in the New Jersey education department to study school segregation and propose solutions. (Erica Seryhm Lee for Chalkbeat)

While New Jersey officials fight a lawsuit that would force the state to confront segregation in its schools, a state lawmaker is seeking to sidestep the legal battle and jump-start the search for solutions.

A new bill, which the senate education committee narrowly approved last week, would establish a Division of School Desegregation within the state education department. The division would analyze racial and socioeconomic segregation in New Jersey schools, study its impact on student outcomes, and create a plan to promote integration.

Despite New Jersey’s diverse population and its state constitution’s ban on school segregation, many of its students of color attend separate and unequal schools. New Jersey has the sixth most segregated schools nationally in terms of Black students’ exposure to white students, and the seventh most segregated for Latinx students, according to an analysis of 2016-17 data.

State Sen. Joseph Cryan (D) (Courtesy of Sen. Joseph Cryan)

State Sen. Joe Cryan, the Democrat who introduced the bill, said New Jersey has a moral obligation to address the issue.

“You cannot live in one of the most diverse states in the country,” he said, “and also have one of the most segregated populations in your educational system.”

Cryan’s bill comes nearly four years after a group of parents and advocates sued New Jersey, arguing that the state maintains segregation by requiring students to attend school in the municipalities where they live, which often are racially imbalanced. On average, 62% of Black students and 58% of Latinx students in New Jersey attend schools where fewer than 20% of their classmates are white, according to data from 2015 to 2020 cited in a filing by the plaintiffs last month.

While Gov. Phil Murphy has stressed the importance of school integration, his administration has battled the lawsuit since it was filed in May 2018. In a December court filing, the state’s deputy attorney general argued that the plaintiffs had failed to show that segregation extends beyond a subset of school districts, and wrote that forcing integration would amount to “obliterating the state’s entire public school system.”

The case has dragged on after settlement talks broke down in 2019. The next hearing before a superior court judge is scheduled for March 3.

Cryan said he shares the plaintiffs’ goal to reduce school segregation in New Jersey, but added that he has not coordinated with either side in the case. 

“The plan is to work the issue legislatively as it should have been addressed years ago,” said Cryan, a member of the legislature’s joint committee on public schools whose district includes Elizabeth and Union Township. He said Building ONE New Jersey, an advocacy group that promotes racial equity, helped generate the idea for the bill.

It remains to be seen whether lawmakers will get behind the idea of a desegregation office — or whether such an office could drive real change.

The New Jersey education department formed a similar division in the 1980s called the Office of Equal Educational Opportunity, according to a 2019 report funded by Rutgers University-Newark. The office ordered some districts to create desegregation plans, and it contributed to integration guidelines the state issued in 1989. However, the guidelines no longer appear to be enforced and the office was disbanded, according to the report, which recommended reestablishing the office and expanding its authority.

At the committee meeting last Thursday where the new desegregation office was discussed, several advocacy groups endorsed the bill, including the state teachers union, the principals union, and the school boards association. A representative from the Education Law Center, which has challenged segregation in New Jersey charter schools, proposed several changes to the bill, including that it allocate $5 million to fund the division’s work and allow it to hire its own staff and director rather than pull from the education department’s existing workforce.

A representative of the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association said the group supports the bill and the goal of integration but, echoing arguments made by the state, added that more analysis is needed to determine “what’s actually possible.” He also said charter schools could offer one way around residential segregation by enrolling students from multiple districts.

Both Republicans on the committee, senators Michael Doherty and Samuel Thompson, voted against the bill. (Neither lawmaker’s office responded to a request for comment.) During the hearing, Thompson cited a district where the majority of students are Latinx and asked, “Would they have to bus a lot of their kids out to surrounding towns and then bus the other kids in to balance this out?”

The question reflects a common belief that school desegregation requires mandatory busing of students to schools or districts often far from their homes. However, integration advocates typically promote voluntary approaches, such as magnet schools that enroll students from multiple districts or incentives for districts that pursue integration. 

The bill, S-820, would require the new desegregation office to consider ways to expand an existing program that lets students attend schools in neighboring districts. The decades-old program is voluntary and only serves about 5,000 students out of some 1.4 million public school students statewide.

Still, Cryan told Chalkbeat that he doubts the state’s entrenched school segregation could be uprooted solely by relying on families to choose more diverse schools. Other solutions that advocates have floated, such as consolidating or greatly expanding districts, could provoke a backlash from residents committed to New Jersey’s tradition of “home rule,” where communities help fund and control their local schools.

“There absolutely will be” opposition to any sweeping desegregation efforts, he said, but added that his bill would only task the new division with proposing solutions, not enacting them.

Cryan said he has not yet spoken with officials from the state education department or the governor’s office about his proposal, but added that he is confident Murphy “wants to work toward an equitable education” for all children. (A department spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.)

“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing you fix overnight,” Cryan said. “It’s going to take a cohesive, long period of effort and focus.”

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