A hearing is scheduled for next week in state Superior Court in a lawsuit that could have monumental impacts on public education across New Jersey.

The lawsuit by the New Jersey Coalition for Diverse and Inclusive Schools seeks to compel the state to overhaul its schools on the grounds that they are illegally segregated by race and class.

The lawsuit was filed nearly a year and a half ago. Settlement negotiations broke down in the spring. Former Supreme Court Associate Justice Gary Stein, the president of the coalition, said segregation in the public schools violates the state constitution and that the courts should intervene.

“So we just felt there was no other way to solve this because, as you can appreciate, this can be a difficult issue for people in public office,” Stein said.

Roughly half of the black students and nearly 45 percent of Latino students in New Jersey, around 275,000 children in all, attend schools that are at least 90% nonwhite. The lawsuit says children of all races are being denied the right to attend diverse schools and gain from the exposure to people with different experiences and perspectives.

“Our segregation, believe it or not, is worse than any state in the South, and of course the South was segregated by law before Brown against Board of Education,” Stein said.

The hearing before Judge Mary Jacobsen in state Superior Court in Trenton is scheduled for Oct. 25. Lawyers from the nonprofit are asking the judge to rule in their favor without holding a full trial – which would tee up the even more contentious litigation or negotiations over how to remedy that.

“The remediation part of the case is difficult. It’s complicated and perhaps expensive,” Stein said. “But it’s certainly something that could be achieved over a decade or more.”

Stein said approaches that have succeeded elsewhere could be adapted to New Jersey, like city-based magnet schools in Hartford and opening seats in schools in 35 Massachusetts suburbs to students from Boston.

However, neither of those is done at the scale of what the lawsuit seeks in New Jersey. The Boston program includes around 3,000 students. The Hartford one has 39 schools. The Garden State lawsuit covers hundreds of thousands of children from one end of the state to the other.

“Our situation is unique because our lawsuit is statewide. We haven’t had a statewide claim of segregated schools brought probably since the ‘60s,” Stein said.

New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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