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 for those who are unfamiliar and then my attempt to put the lawsuit in the larger context of the struggle for racial justice in NJ public schools.
Here’s my best attempt at a one paragraph summary:
NJ is the 6th most segregated state for Black students and 7th for Latinx students. In response, the Latino Action Network and the NJ 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 the charter’s home district. The plaintiffs argue that residency requirements (or, for charters, preferences) essentially guarantee schools will be segregated, given housing segregation across NJ’s many small towns. If the suit is successful, the state’s ed commissioner and governor would have three months to come up with remedies. There’s considerable reason for hope: NJ’s constitution actually prohibits segregation of any person “in the public schools, because of religious principles, race, color, ancestry or national origin.” And, NJ courts have also ruled against so-called de facto segregation, which is much more immune to legal remedy at the federal level. For a more detailed summary, I definitely recommend checking out the always-great Ed Law Prof Blog.
With this suit, NJ joins a similar case in Minnesota as civil rights advocates pursue integration through state courts amidst an inhospitable federal environment 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, NJ 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, I think you can see a microcosm of the larger struggle for educational/racial justice. There was a great discussion of this on a recent episode of the Have You Heard podcast (28 min) – Here’s my attempt to connect relevant points from the podcast to the NJ integration suit:
- A new book – called Takeover by Domingo Morel – explores an interesting historical symmetry in NJ ed policy: that the state’s takeover of Newark public schools (one of the earliest takeovers in any state) directly followed the court’s initial ruling in Abbott.
- Morel’s research aims to understand why certain schools were taken over, while others were not. He was a guest on the podcast and states quite clearly: “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.” So: Once money was directed towards schools that serve Black students in Newark, state politicians enacted policies to take control of that money away from Black local leaders.
- And, it didn’t just happen in NJ. The podcast notes that, during the time period explored by Morel, 18 states won cases for school funding – of those, 14 (!) passed state takeover laws, including my home state of MA. The only ones that didn’t were among the whitest states in the country.
- Also common across the country, NJ either had existing laws or created new laws that essentially blocked Black and Latinx students from schools in other districts that were getting adequate funding and who were not subject to state takeover. (The same policies that are the target of this lawsuit.) As in so many other places, decades went by like this and segregation increased. Then, a lawsuit like this one comes along to try again to get Black and Latinx students access to adequately resourced schools.
For me, it all illustrates the decades-long push and pull: all the work that goes into policy that ultimately keeps non-white students in under-resourced schools and keeps white students in majority-white spaces. And, then all the complicated legal work required to push back against that. 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.