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Lawsuit Seeks to Better Integrate New Jersey Schools

A coalition of civil rights advocates sued New Jersey to prod the state to better integrate its public schools.

Students depart Roberto Clemente Elementary School in Newark, N.J., at dismissal time in June 2016.

A coalition of civil-rights advocates Thursday filed a lawsuit against New Jersey to prod the state to better integrate its public schools.

The suit organized by the New Jersey Coalition for Diverse and Inclusive Schools argues that policies that require most children to attend neighborhood schools, along with residential segregation, violate students’ right to equal protection and the state constitution’s guarantee of a “thorough and efficient” education.

“New Jersey for decades hasn’t done anything to address the fact that its urban schools are intensively segregated by race and poverty,” said Gary Stein, a retired New Jersey Supreme Court Justice and chairman of the coalition. The group said children of color in highly segregated schools are more likely to score lower on standardized tests, quit school and skip college.

Filed in Superior Court in Mercer County on behalf of several students of various racial backgrounds, the suit names the state as a defendant.

A spokesman for Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said he couldn’t comment on litigation, but added that the governor “believes strongly that we must combat the deeply rooted problem of segregation.”

The coalition includes leaders of various religious groups and the Latino Action Network, Advocates for Children of New Jersey and NAACP New Jersey State Conference. It was filed on the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

The coalition says the lawsuit is one of the first filed nationwide since 1964 to challenge statewide school segregation. The issue is contentious in many districts, including New York City, where parents in the Upper West Side and Brooklyn are debating ways to change enrollment policies to diversify classrooms. Some city parents have protested changes that might hurt their children’s access to desirable schools.

New Jersey had nearly 1.4 million public-school students last year in roughly 700 districts: 45% were white, 27% Latino, 16% black and 10% Asian, the suit said. About 270,000 African-American and Latino students attend schools where at least 90% of the students are children of color, the suit said. Of 213,000 black students in New Jersey, about 25% go to public schools where less than 1% of students are white, the suit said.

Segregation harms all students, including white students, by creating homogeneous classrooms, the suit said. “Given the narrowness of their social experiences, students in segregated schools are at greater risk of adopting prejudicial views,” it said.

The coalition asks the court to strike down a provision of the law that requires students to almost always attend their local school. It suggests several remedies, such as increasing the number of magnet schools that draw students from urban and suburban areas to learn together, and adding programs that let children attend schools beyond their own districts’ borders.

The group cites the creation of magnet schools in Hartford, Conn., and nearby communities, after the Connecticut Supreme Court held that racially segregated public schools violated the state constitution. That magnet school program attracts white students from the suburbs into Hartford for specialized programs.

Patrick Fletcher, superintendent of River Dell Regional School District in New Jersey, said many students wouldn’t want to leave their neighborhoods because families often have strong connections to schools as hubs for sports, clubs and social activities. He said that whether suburban, rural or urban, “in any community that has that tie, they will resist the opportunity to go somewhere else.”

The suit also asked the court to strike down a provision of state law that requires charter schools to give priority to students from the charter’s home district. Charters are generally opened in high-poverty urban areas that have predominantly black and Latino children, and so typically serve mostly children of color.

Former New Jersey education commissioner Christopher Cerf, who isn’t involved in the litigation, said that it would be a protracted process.

“Any lawsuit that seeks to use the courts to upend an established status quo generally has a very heavy burden, but the Supreme Court of New Jersey, particularly in the context of race, has been very assertive in its willingness to take on the status quo,” he said. “There is no question the underlying factual allegations are accurate and troubling.”

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