TRENTON – Legislation advancing in the state Senate would create a Division of School Desegregation in the state Department of Education, responsible for identifying instances of racial and socioeconomic segregation and ways to ensure diverse enrollment in New Jersey public schools.

The division would compile statistics on the racial, ethnic and economic composition of each public school and do a comparative analysis of the educational outcomes of students in highly segregated schools and the more racially and economically integrated schools.

It would then have 180 days to come up with a plan to increase and maintain diversity in all school districts.

“As we know, New Jersey has the most segregated schools in the country, so I think this bill hopefully gets us in the right direction,” said Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth.

“If we want to maximize the value of investing in our schools, we have to strive to ensure educational equity,” said Sen. Joe Cryan, D-Union, the sponsor of bill S-820. “We do better as a state if all of our students are offered a quality education, regardless of race or socioeconomic background.”

The Education Law Center, which represents groups that have sued the state over segregated schools, welcomed the bill but said it needs to be significantly strengthened.

“We do think it’s a long-overdue step to begin to rebuild the Department of Education’s capacity to tackle the barriers to school desegregation in New Jersey for all students – for Black, Latino, Asian, white, all students – so they can experience the benefits of integration and diversity in education,” said Sharon Krengel, the law center’s outreach and policy director.

The ELC says the division should be kept separate from the Department of Education with its own budget and hiring authority; study more than just the inter-district public school choice program; have a public outreach and engagement component; and annually report to the Legislature.

Harry Lee, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, said school segregation is a challenge in New Jersey but complex to address because it’s driven by housing patterns, as students are supposed to attend school in the town or city where they live.

But charter schools can be regional and provide part of the solution, Lee said.

“Charter schools provide a 25-year model for student-centered, high-accountability, ZIP code-crossing public school choice programs that can help mitigate the racial imbalance in our schools that largely arises from housing patterns between municipalities,” Lee said.

“Creating more diverse-by-design charter schools in towns and cities across New Jersey can get more public school kids in integrated schools,” he said.

In addition to a number of education groups, the New Jersey Business and Industry Association also supports the bill.

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Christopher Emigholz, the NJBIA’s vice president of government affairs, said “it’s the right thing to do” and could lead to more school choice and regionalization, both of which the group supports.

“Anything you do to make our schools desegregated will improve both the effectiveness of the schools and the efficiency of our schools, and it’s going to be a good thing for all the students and the districts and the taxpayers,” Emigholz said.

The proposal was endorsed by the Senate Education Committee in a 3-2, party-line vote at its Feb. 3 meeting. It now awaits consideration by the full Senate and the Assembly Education Committee.

Michael Symons is the Statehouse bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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