Judge’s ruling on lawsuit targeting segregation in N.J. schools frustrates plaintiffs, activists

‘Marked and persistent racial imbalance’ apparent in numerous schools, but not widespread segregation, judge said

BY:  - OCTOBER 10, 2023 7:00 AM

Education activists are expressing disappointment with a judge’s long-awaited ruling that found a racial imbalance in numerous New Jersey school districts, but not widespread segregation statewide.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Gary Stein, chairman of the New Jersey Coalition for Diverse and Inclusive Schools, which launched the legal fight targeting school segregation, called Friday’s ruling “hard to understand.”

“It’s like saying to a patient, you have cancer in your lungs, but not the rest of your body, so we’re not going to do anything about it,” Stein told the New Jersey Monitor.

Mercer County Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy’s 99-page opinion agrees with the plaintiffs — a coalition of students, school districts, and organizations including the NAACP and Latino Action Network — that they “demonstrated marked and persistent racial imbalance” in schools across the state that the state has failed to remedy. But he also found that they “fail to prove the state’s entire education system is unconstitutionally segregated because of race or ethnicity.”

The plaintiffs sought to have Lougy rule before trial that the state was liable for school segregation. The defendants, which include the state Board of Education, asked him to dismiss the case. He largely declined both requests.

Larry Lustberg, attorney for Latino Action Network, said in a statement to the New Jersey Monitor that the matter might be set for trial, but it’s unclear what facts would be tried because the court rejected most of the state’s defenses.

He said there are four options: a trial, a settlement discussion, either party could file a motion for reconsideration, or either party could file a motion to have an appeal heard.

“We are trying to sort that through,” he said.

The state Attorney General’s Office, which argued the case on behalf of the defendants, said it is still reviewing the decision and declined to comment further.

The lawsuit hinges on the accusation that because of a state requirement mandating children attend the schools in towns where they live, schools in New Jersey are heavily segregated. The plaintiffs cite examples like Paterson, where the public schools are nearly 70% Latino and 20% Black, and West Milford, where students of color make up less than 15% of the school population.

In the 674 public school districts serving 1.3 million students, about 585,000 Black and Latino students attend public schools with student populations that are more than 75% non-white, the lawsuit says, citing 2017 data. More than half of those students attend schools that are more than 90% non-white.

Julie Borst is the executive director of Save Our Schools, a nonprofit school advocacy organization that was not involved in the lawsuit but supports its mission. She said she was disappointed but not surprised by Lougy’s opinion.

She argued that a trial could be good for the public to better understand this issue. Potential remedies to school segregation — like busing students to other districts or specialized magnet schools — are complicated, and could confuse parents, she said.

“Maybe this ends up being better because now it becomes more public. People will get to learn about it,” Borst said. “Maybe that hopefully spurs more discussion about what this looks like and what resources are really needed.”

Stein criticized the lengthy process it took to arrive at an opinion that does not plainly lay out what the next steps are. He called the delays “very difficult to understand.”

The case was first filed in 2018 following a report that alleged New Jersey’s public schools are among the most segregated in the nation. Oral arguments did not begin until March 2022, and the judge released his opinion 18 months later. New Jersey’s courts dealt with a backlog throughout the pandemic and continue to face a shortage of judges across the state, contributing to some delays in cases like this.

“I believe that the New Jersey Judiciary has to move much more quickly than it has been on this very, very significant issue for our state’s African American and Latino students,” he said. “Some of the students in this case have graduated from high school and moved on.”

And now that this may go to trial, it could drag on for months or years. Borst worries about what this means for another generation of students attending segregated schools. She doesn’t think the state will seek out a solution or overhaul school residency requirements without an order from a judge.

“I feel like we’re in the status quo. They’ve been safe and very comfortable not doing anything for all this time, so I can’t imagine that this decision is going to move the needle on that at all,” she said.

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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
SOPHIE NIETO-MUNOZ

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for NJ.com, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.

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  • Javier Robles
    published this page in Press & News 2023-10-11 13:49:10 -0400

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