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Friday, June 1, 2018

School Desegregation News Roundup: Spotlight on New Jersey

The Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity is pleased to feature the School Desegregation News Roundup: periodic updates and reflections on educational desegregation and related issues, provided by Peter Piazza, an education policy researcher based in Massachusetts. Updates are crossposted on his site, available here.  

There was major news out of New Jersey last week: civil rights groups filed a lawsuit against the state for laws that codify school segregation. This post is a very quick summary of the case for and then an attempt to put the lawsuit in the larger context of the decades-long push and pull for racial justice in New Jersey public schools.

A brief summary: New Jersey is the 6th most segregated state for Black students and 7th for Latinx students. In response, the Latino Action Network and the New Jersey NAACP filed suit on the 64th anniversary of Brown last week. The suit is specifically focused on state laws that (a) require students to live in the town where they attend school (for traditional public schools) and (b) require that charter schools give preference to students who live in their home districts. The plaintiffs argue that residency requirements (or, for charters, preferences) essentially guarantee schools will be segregated, given housing segregation across New Jersey’s many small towns. If these laws are struck down, the state’s ed commissioner and governor would have three months to come up with remedies. Plaintiffs have considerable reason for hope: New Jersey’s constitution actually prohibits segregation of any person “in the public schools, because of religious principles, race, color, ancestry or national origin.” And New Jersey courts have also ruled against so-called de facto segregation, which is much harder to legally challenge at the federal level.

For a more detailed summary, I recommend checking out the always-great Ed Law Prof Blog. With this suit, New Jersey joins a similar case in Minnesota as civil rights advocates pursue integration through state courts amidst an inhospitable federal environment (one that will likely be made worse by judicial nominees who refuse to endorse Brown and who just recently moved closer to Senate confirmation).

In the past, New Jersey courts have been at the forefront of educational equity. Famously, the Abbott v. Burke case ordered significant funding increases to under-resourced school districts across the state. There were many iterations and re-litigations of Abbott (outlined nicely here), but its initial decision came in 1988. Between Abbott and this new case, you can see a microcosm of the larger struggle for educational/racial justice.

Some of this struggle was the subject of a great discussion of this on a recent episode of the Have You Heard podcast. The main takeaways from that discussion:
  • A new book by Domingo Morel, called Takeover, uncovers an interesting historical symmetry in New Jersey ed policy: that the state’s takeover of Newark public schools (one of the earliest takeovers in any state) directly followed the state supreme court’s initial ruling in Abbott. 
  • Morel’s book aims to understand why certain schools were taken over, while others were not. On the Have You Heard podcast, Morel argues that “if you don’t have plaintiffs winning court cases [for school funding] during this period, 1980-2000, you essentially don’t have any takeover laws.” In other words, once money was directed towards schools that serve Black students in Newark, state politicians implemented new policies to take control of that money away from Black local leaders. 
  •  This didn’t just happen in New Jersey. The podcast notes that, during the time period explored by Morel, 18 states won cases for school funding and 14 of those passed state takeover laws, including my home state of Massachusetts. The four states that didn’t were among the whitest states in the country. 
  •  New Jersey and other states around the country also either had existing laws or created new laws that essentially blocked Black and Latinx from attending schools in other districts that were getting adequate funding, and which were not subject to state takeover. (These are the same policies that are the target of the current lawsuit.) In New Jersey and elsewhere, this persisted for decades while segregation increased, until new plaintiffs come along to secure access to adequately resourced schools for Black and Latinx students.
For me, it all illustrates a decades-long push and pull: all the work that goes into keeping non-white students in under-resourced schools and keeping white students in majority-white spaces. And, then all the complex legal activity and (frankly) bravery required to push back against that work. Here’s hoping for some success - it is long-deserved and it never should have been this complicated in the first place. I’ll post updates.

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