Desegregation orders have led to progress in some school districts in recent decades, in NJ and elsewhere

A landmark court decision is awaited. What are the potential remedies?

It is not in dispute that New Jersey’s public schools have long been among the nation’s most racially segregated. The data is clear on the great number of schools where one race or another not only predominates but is the rule.

The question is how to address the issue, which is often dictated by housing and other societal factors, with New Jersey also among the nation’s foremost in school desegregation orders, edicts and not always friendly debates.


From Montclair to Morristown, Englewood to Pleasantville, districts in New Jersey have faced difficult questions about how to diversify their schools to meet the state’s constitutional and moral promise that no child shall be denied the benefit of a diverse schooling.

Now, that debate may be coming to a head as a ruling is awaited from the state’s powerful Superior Court in Trenton on whether it’s time for the state as a whole to face up to those same questions on desegregation — and this time come up with an answer.

The Latino Action Network and NAACP-NJ are leading a lawsuit in the Superior Court. Their contention: the state is liable for addressing the fact that despite New Jersey’s increasingly diverse population, still more than half of Black and Hispanic students attend schools that are predominantly non-white, and half of white students are in schools that are predominantly white.  

Not only does this violate New Jersey’s Constitution, the plaintiffs maintain, but also is in violation of the decision by the  U.S. Supreme Court almost 70 years ago in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. The plaintiffs are demanding the state be held responsible and ordered to devise a statewide strategy to address it.

‘We also know a big contributor — the biggest contributor, in fact — to any segregation in schools is location and whether folks can afford to be in one community or another.’

Gov. Phil Murphynone

A ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would really be only a first step, as neither does the complaint demand nor is it Judge Robert Lougy’s charge to define how exactly to desegregate the schools. The complaint only asks that the state come up with a plan.

A ruling would also come during an especially perilous time as divisions mount trying to settle any racially charged debate, national or local and when the U.S. Supreme Court has set new parameters for what is constitutional on the federal scale (see its recent affirmative action ruling).

Just how perilous has been shown by Gov. Phil Murphy’s response so far in the case, which is now ongoing for five years. He has kept his head down, not taking a firm decision or setting in motion any kind of direct remedy for schools.

In an interview on Chat Box with David Cruz on NJ Spotlight News in June, Murphy defended his administration and said it has focused on diversifying communities as a means of addressing segregation.

“Anyone who know me knows I stand for equal justice and social justice,” he said. “We also know a big contributor — the biggest contributor, in fact — to any segregation in schools is location and whether folks can afford to be in one community or another.”

Gov. Phil Murphy speaking to NJ Spotlight News’ David Cruz about the school segregation lawsuit.

Murphy did not mention the host of direct actions taken across the country, including locally in New Jersey, that provide promising lessons on school desegregation.

Two initiatives cited in the lawsuit are, in Connecticut what is perhaps the most ambitious effort in the country in years and in New Jersey, one of the longest-standing efforts.

Hartford, Connecticut

When it comes to longevity, Hartford’s Sheff v. O’Neill case ranks right up there with New Jersey’s most famous equity cases. First brought in 1989, it sought the desegregation of the state capital’s schools in a case that spanned six governors and decades of legislators.

Yet after repeated efforts to open up choice to urban and suburban schools for years and seeing few districts oblige, the state’s Supreme Court ruled in 1996 on behalf of the plaintiffs, leading to the creation of now more than 40 specialized magnet schools for students to choose from across Hartford and more than 20 suburbs.

Last year, under further legal challenge the case was settled outright, with the state adopting a selection process for students based on socioeconomic factors like ZIP code and parents’ education, instead of race. It was a move that protected the ruling from further legal challenge, says its proponents, and would lead to comparable racial diversity across districts. More than 140 school districts across the country use the socioeconomic-based model instead of race.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs in Sheff v. O’Neill said overall it has proved a powerful model, with now thousands of students crossing district lines to go to school, both in and outside Hartford. Ten years after the Sheff ruling, more than 10,000 students across the region attended the magnet schools.

Read the amended complaintfiled by Latino Action Network, NAACP New Jersey and others against the state of New Jersey.

“A lot of things have worked well,” said Martha Stone, founder and executive director of the University of Connecticut’s Center for Children’s Advocacy. “We started 30 years ago with no magnets and now have more than 40 and more than 20 participating communities.”

But, said Stone, there have been some hard lessons, too. While suburban districts have opened their schools to Hartford students, they have done so on a sporadic basis, with only a few seats offered at a time or only in entry grades like kindergarten or 6th grade. The marketing practices of schools and the logistics of getting to out-of-way locations have also proven critical.

“Locations matter,” she said. “Some are just too far away.”

However, Stone and others said the central tenet of giving families choices has been most critical.

Richard Kahlenberg, a scholar at Georgetown University, has been among the nation’s leading proponents of the use of socioeconomic status instead of race as a defining factor in school desegregation.

“Hartford has been able to do this where it is voluntary,” he said.

Kahlenberg said it comes with financial costs. “[The magnet system] costs a lot of money, teachers to train and equipment needed,” he said. “But the lesson is you can create substantial integration and do it in a legally sustainable way.”

And any further pushback? “As long as it’s voluntary, that eliminates a vast majority of any opposition,” he said.

Rally for desegregation

Sixteen months ago, advocates and students rallied in Trenton on Thursday to raise awareness about the desegregation lawsuit against the state of New Jersey.

Morristown, New Jersey

There are plenty of lessons from New Jersey’s own history of desegregation efforts — many with mixed results.

morristown high school
Morristown High School

Under federal decree, Montclair created a magnet school system, but continues to face pressures over the high cost of transportation involved. Under state court order, Englewood sought to diversify its high school with the creation of a magnet school next door, but some said that only fed further resentments from those not selected to attend the new academy.

A few districts have been more obstructive than proactive. Just last month, interim state Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan blocked the predominantly white Absecon district in Atlantic County from withdrawing from its “sending” agreement with the neighboring Pleasantville schools, where Black and Hispanic students are the vast majority.

But one effort that has so far been sustained with considerable success, or at least stability has been the state-ordered merger of Morris Township and Morristown schools.

A 1971 state order led to the districts — Morris Township predominantly white, Morristown mostly children of color — to combine into one, along with the smaller Morris Plains schools next door.

‘There was a remarkable can-do attitude among the teachers and administrative staff. I never once heard a teacher throw up their hands and say this is impossible.’

Paul Tractenberg, a founding attorney with the Education Law Centernone

Paul Tractenberg, one of the founding attorneys of the Education Law Center, which brought the state’s epic Abbott v. Burke school-funding equity case, has studied Morristown’s evolution over the last four decades and describes it as a true success story in integration.

Tractenberg gives much of the credit to a community that was open to addressing the challenge in the first place, both inside the district and in homes and churches. As evidence, the feared “white flight” never materialized, he said.

“There was a remarkable can-do attitude among the teachers and administrative staff,” Tractenberg said. “I never once heard a teacher throw up their hands and say this is impossible.”

He said there are still integration challenges in Morristown, not just among schools but within them, too, to make sure all students are offered the same opportunities in advanced and other selective programs.

Key ruling on school segregation case still pending: A September 2022 report

“You can’t rely on just the district-wide level,” Tractenberg said. “That often masks segregation among schools. You need to find a way of extending it to schools, and ultimately the classroom level.”

He said the latter remains an “uphill fight” in Morristown and the district is a work in progress, but a worthwhile one.

“It was not nirvana by any means,” Tractenberg said. “But they somehow navigated the difficult issues and were able to keep it going.”

LAN et al v. New Jersey

Morristown and Hartford figure prominently in the case now before the state’s Superior Court. The complaint does not demand specific remedies at this point, only that the state come up with a plan for them, but it lists a range of options.

These include district consolidations like Morristown’s and magnet programs like Hartford’s, but also other choice options across districts lines, including broader use of vocational schools and even charter schools. At the heart is breaking down the state’s residency requirement to attend specific schools, said one of the plaintiffs’ lead lawyers. 

“We envision the remedy to be a voluntary one,” said Larry Lustberg, a lead attorney and a veteran of several legal equity fights in New Jersey.

Still, Lustberg also warned it will likely be a difficult process getting to a consensus of what that remedy should be, given the intense politics around race both in and outside New Jersey.

“At the end of the day, the remedial process will be very complicated and quite likely adversarial,” he said. “Even the [plaintiff] parties disagree on the best way to go.”

But with the state so far not willing to take the lead, Lustberg said he is eager to get going before another generation of students suffers in segregated settings.

“What bothers me the most from the beginning is the state never sat down to try to address the problem,” he said. “This is not just delaying the final result, it’s delaying the start of the race.”

Cover image: Stephanie Aaronson

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  • Christian Estevez
    published this page in Press & News 2023-07-11 10:46:07 -0400