Act now on school desegregation before courts do, NJ lawmakers urged
TRENTON – Lawmakers are mulling what steps they can take to address segregation in New Jersey public schools, even before a Superior Court judge rules in a pending lawsuit that seeks to force the state to take action.
Don’t wait, the Joint Committee on the Public Schools was told often at a hearing on the topic Wednesday. Advocates said lawmakers probably don’t want to cede control over the response to the judiciary.
“Let’s not wait,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center. “The Legislature doesn’t need to wait and frankly should not wait for a court order to begin serious and sustained work on an issue that is so central to the right that our students have to a thorough and efficient education.”
“If you don’t have a strategy, you’ll have one imposed on you,” said Myron Orfield Jr., a University of Minnesota law school professor. “The law is very strong in New Jersey. Courts are very clear in New Jersey. They will impose a solution on you. You have a chance to get out in front of it, create something that strengthens your funding formula or even a chance to respond to an increasingly polarized debate.”
Rev. Willie Francois, pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville and chairman of the New Jersey Coalition Against Racial Exclusion, said it would be irresponsible to wait for Superior Court Robert Lougy to rule in Latino Action Network v. New Jersey lawsuit.
“We don’t want, you don’t want the courts to impose a remedy. It’s not their job. They interpret the law, but you all make the law,” Francois told lawmakers. “I’m pretty sure that because their branch of government is not about legislation, they’re going to get it wrong.”
Speakers at the hearing included Rev. Jerome Page, president of the Pleasantville school board, which is trying to prevent Absecon from ending its sending-receiving agreement for high school students.
“With this segregation, there’s no chance that we as a community of educators can ever touch the racism or the systemic racism that’s going through without teaching it in the classroom,” Page said.
Leslie Wilson, a professor and associate dean at Montclair State University, said New Jersey must create “true diversity” starting in elementary school – among teachers as well as students.
“And make sure that when our students get to college, it’s not the first time that they have a person of color teaching in front of them, a person who is different teaching in front of them, a person of a different ethnicity, a different race, a different religion,” Wilson said.
Support was voiced for the creation of a Division of School Desegregation in the state Department of Education, along with an increase in funding and staffing at the DOE to analyze enrollment patterns, as well as other efforts to have more students voluntarily attending districts other than ones in the cities or towns where they live.
Orfield urged legislators to think beyond small remedial programs about ways that incentivizes school integration while dealing with property taxes. He said it could be “a monumental … victory for civil rights” not seen in the country in many years.
Francois said school regionalization studies that are currently being prioritized should be designed in ways that prevent them going forward if they reduce, rather than enhance, diversity.
“Currently, the bill, it is designed to save the state money,” Francois said. “I think everybody loves saving money. But there is a constitutional mandate to end segregation, not to save money.”
Wildwood Schools Superintendent Kenyon Kummings said the problem with any remedy that includes inter-district choice or charter, magnet or vo-tech schools is that those approaches are perpetuating the issue.
“To date, we have not found any mechanism or publicly available dataset that should what enrolment in those schools is doing to the demographics of the enrollment of the sending district nor the receiving district,” Kummings said.
The committee’s co-chairwoman, Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, D-Essex, said at least one additional hearing on the subject will be held.