Separate But Unequal

8/15/20 by Miriam Wolk

          In May 2018, a group of Black and Latino students and a civil rights group sued the state of New Jersey, calling upon its leaders to desegregate public schools. The state’s public schools are some of the most segregated in the nation, with nearly half of all Black and Latino students (around 270,000) attending schools that are more than 90% non-white. The state is also ranked the sixth most segregated state for Black students and seventh for Latino students, according to a 2017 study done at UCLA. The group recently declined settlement and moved to continue with the suit.

         Cases like these are rarely brought up in state legislatures, and are significantly less common following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954. And with New Jersey’s unique legal framework, the lawsuit could lead to the complete restructuring of the state’s public school system. In 1881, the state enacted a statute that banned racial segregation in schools, and later adopted this as a constitutional provision. To this day, it is the only state constitution to have such explicit language regarding the issue. This provision has been upheld multiple times, notably in 1944 when a state court ruled it was illegal for a Trenton school to bar students from attending based on their race. In 1965, New Jersey eliminated the distinction between de jure and de facto segregation, meaning there is no legal distinction between segregation required by law and segregation that “just happens.”

          New Jersey has consistently been at the forefront of civil rights, so with such a detailed legal framework preventing school segregation, how did the schools become so segregated? Shouldn’t a state with one of the most diverse populations in the nation be integrated? The answer lies in how school districts are split up. In New Jersey, division by municipality is the most common method. Due to historical segregation and redlining, New Jersey towns are fairly homogeneous. It is rare that significant racial integration is seen in New Jersey suburbs. And because school districts are so fragmented, it is inevitable the same patterns will be seen under this system. New Jersey has around 565 municipalities and 700 school districts. Compare this to neighboring state Pennsylvania, which has roughly 2,500 municipalities and only 500 school districts. 

          The Garden State has rejected the nation-wide trend of decreasing the amount of school districts, seeing a 20% increase over the past 80 years. Not only do these largely fragmented districts exacerbate segregation, they also increase state-wide administration costs by around $100 million a year. It is for these reasons that school district consolidation has been so widely supported by policy makers and citizens alike. It would both reduce taxes and greatly increase integration in public schools. And while in theory, it’s a great idea, it has proven to be challenging in execution. In 2013, Princeton Borough and Princeton Township were merged. WHYY, a Philadelphia radio station, noted at the time that “it took two very similar communities, one of which completely surrounds the other and which already shared a regional school district and planning board, four tries over six decades to accomplish.” 

          New Jersey boasts the title of “#1 public schools in the nation”, most notably proclaimed by our own government’s twitter @NJGov. But the schools are not #1 for everyone involved. Students' access to adequate academic support and resources are dictated by their zip codes. While white, wealthy students are lucky enough to receive one of the best public educations offered in the country, students just one or two towns over struggle to meet state-mandated proficiency levels due simply to their school’s inability to provide them with necessary resources to succeed. Separate but equal is not and never will truly be equal, so New Jersey cannot truly claim itself to be #1 if segregation continues to be such a glaring issue over 50 years after Brown vs. Board of Education.