NJ school desegregation lawsuit could bring statewide change
TRENTON – A lawsuit that could force far-reaching changes to public schools across New Jersey is now in the hands of a state judge, who has been asked to declare that the schools are unconstitutionally segregated.
The lawsuit brought by the Latino Action Network, NAACP New Jersey State Conference and other groups in 2018 has meandered through the courts, but in oral arguments last week Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy, the assignment judge for the Mercer vicinage, was asked to direct the state to act.
Attorney Lawrence Lustberg said New Jersey has among the nation’s least integrated education systems, with half of Black students and 45% of Hispanic ones attending schools where more than 90% percent of students are non-white.
“It is about racial justice in a state that congratulates itself on being fair and just and egalitarian but is in fact among the worst in the nation when it comes to the segregation of our public schools,” Lustberg said.
The state contends that reflects housing patterns and that the evidence doesn’t show the statewide school system is unconstitutional.
“The plaintiffs ask this court to find that the state’s entire public school system is unconstitutionally segregated and therefore requires a complete overhaul of the system,” said deputy attorney general Christopher Weber
Weber says the plaintiffs are seeking to win without participating in “the arduous process” of examining the complexities of providing a thorough and efficient education system “in a wildly diverse state such as New Jersey.” He said the lawsuit relies on selected, raw data from 23 districts, though Lustberg said that’s not the case.
“They refuse to engage in that deeper analysis of the facts and circumstances that give rise to the racial patterns in New Jersey school districts,” Weber said. “They refuse to examine the root causes of imbalances or what the fix would be.”
Lustberg said the remedy phase would come after liability is determined. He acknowledged that it would be long, difficult and complicated and involve experts who have examined segregation in other states, and he suggested solutions might include magnet schools, charter schools and choice programs.
“But let’s give it a shot,” Lustberg said. “And honestly, your honor, they won’t give it a shot unless this court tells them there’s a constitutional problem. It won’t happen.”
Lustberg said students shouldn’t have to go to school in the district where they live, as is the general rule currently.
“Give people a choice and create opportunities for New Jersey students whose parents all want the best for them to cross district lines in order to get a diverse educational experience – as the New Jersey Supreme Court has made clear, not only a better one but a constitutional one,” Lustberg said.
Lougy didn’t indicate when he would rule but said it wouldn’t be immediately, given the complexity and importance of the issue.