A coalition of New Jersey racial justice activists is looking to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to intervene in what it says has been intolerable inaction by the state around school segregation.

The New Jersey Coalition Against Racial Exclusion, or NJ-CARE, hand-delivered a letter to Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke at last week’s NAACP convention in Atlantic City. The letter says the coalition will soon file a federal complaint alleging New Jersey uses federal funds “to knowingly promote and perpetuate one of the most segregated and unequal public school systems in the nation.”

“The Department of Justice has the right to investigate, to look into any claim of school segregation because of its own federal statutes,” the Rev. Willie Francois, co-chair of the coalition, told Gothamist.

The move highlights a contrast in strategy with other local civil rights groups, including New Jersey’s largest. Since 2018, the state NAACP conference and Latino Action Network have been plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging New Jersey violates its own constitution by letting segregation fester — citing a 2017 UCLA Civil Rights Project Study that described New Jersey schools as among the nation’s most segregated, and that found nearly half of all Black and Latino students attended public schools that were at least 90% non-white.

Once such a ruling is in hand, the state NAACP told Gothamist this week, it’ll be time to start advancing policy proposals.

But NJ-CARE — the Building One America civil rights organization's New Jersey project, which says it’s made up of more than two dozen member organizations including faith groups, union locals, NAACP chapters, and community groups — says holding out hope for a court ruling isn’t enough. It says state legislators and Gov. Phil Murphy should have been moving ahead with policies to integrate New Jersey’s schools for years.

Instead, Murphy “has used this litigation as a cover for doing nothing,” Francois said. And the group, in its letter, additionally accuses NAACP State Conference President Richard Smith of positioning himself as a “gatekeeper” to the governor on segregation, excluding groups like NJ-CARE from any discussions.

The group has cited the governor’s close ties with the NAACP — he’s a former national board member — and the Philip and Tammy Murphy Family Foundation’s donations to the national organization before Murphy became governor. It also cites Murphy's approval of $2 million in state funds for the NAACP convention.

The DOJ acknowledged receiving the letter, but declined any further comment. The governor’s office deferred any comment on any pending litigation to the state Attorney General’s Office, which declined to address NJ-CARE’s threat of a federal complaint as well, and in turn deferred to the governor’s office to discuss broader policy.

Alyana Alfaro Post, press secretary for Murphy, told Gothamist by email that “learning in a diverse classroom environment is critical for the education of every child in New Jersey.” She pointed to the state’s recent investments in preschool education expansion, housing, and communities, and the creation of a Wealth Disparity Task Force as demonstrations of that commitment.

But anti-segregation activists — including those from the NAACP and NJ-CARE — say it’ll take much more targeted measures to address segregation in New Jersey. And NJ-CARE says it would hold off on any federal complaint if it sees signs of engagement or action by the Murphy administration. If NJ-CARE does move ahead with a federal complaint, it could take months or years to adjudicate that matter as well.

“The governor can act now,” Francois said. “And if the governor acts now, then we don't have to worry about federal intervention.”

Awaiting a court decision

Parties on all sides are awaiting Judge Robert Lougy’s ruling on arguments made in March. The NAACP, Latino Action Network and other plaintiffs want Lougy to find New Jersey liable for permitting segregation by requiring New Jersey students to attend schools in the communities where they live, which have often been made racially imbalanced by a history of white flight and discriminatory housing practices.

The state has countered that the plaintiffs should propose specific solutions before seeking a liability ruling, and that they should “develop a robust record for defining segregation” that doesn’t rely on demographic data alone. NAACP education chairperson Tom Puryear told Gothamist the plaintiffs’ legal counsel believes offering the court policy prescriptions before a ruling recognizing New Jersey’s schools as unconstitutionally segregated would be “putting the cart before the horse.”

But plaintiffs in the case have offered some fixes, such as consolidating districts to give parents regional school choices or creating more magnet schools that draw from various towns.

NJ-CARE shares some of those goals. It also advocates for measures such as giving the state Department of Education more enforcement authority in cases where segregation is taking place, and prohibiting school “secessions” in which largely white communities break away from more integrated districts.

New Jersey’s constitution says no one will be segregated in public schools “because of religious principles, race, color, ancestry, or national origin.” Even if the court does rule for the plaintiffs, Puryear acknowledged, it’ll take “a herculean effort to develop a solution” that will satisfy that requirement.

“A successful lawsuit will nullify the ‘perception’ that New Jersey's schools operate under the guise of ‘home rule,’” he said, referencing the principle of local governments’ control over local matters. “There is no ‘home rule’ as it relates to NJ's schools. The state alone has the responsibility to assure that all New Jersey children receive a thorough and efficient education.”

Right there in Bergen County, across the bridge from New York City, you have a moment where the Murphy administration literally expanded segregation … through his education commissioner.

The Rev. Willie Francois, co-chair of NJ-CARE

The size of the challenge

Both the lawsuit and NJ-CARE’s own legislative priorities are responses in part to the 2017 UCLA study, which found many measures of segregation had doubled over the period it examined from 1989 through 2015.

In that time, the percentage of students in “intensely segregated” schools — with between 0% and 10% white students — had risen from 22% to 46%. The study also found the percentage in what the study categorized as “apartheid” schools – with under 1% white students — went from 4.8% to 8.3%.

An analysis by the Century Foundation this year also found schools in New Jersey’s largest city, Newark, to be among the country’s most segregated.

“The big reason why we are where we are is because we have very significant segregation in housing,” Elise Boddie, a professor of law at Rutgers Law School and founder of the Inclusion Project at Rutgers told Gothamist in March, when the NAACP and Latino Action Network lawsuit was last in court. “Because we have a state law that more or less requires students to attend school where they live, those systems of residential segregation carry into our school system.”

Much of NJ-CARE’s attention is focused on what are known as sending-receiving arrangements. Its members were vocal opponents of a move by the K-8 Absecon school district in Atlantic County to stop sending its students to neighboring, majority-Black Pleasantville for high school, with Absecon parents citing concerns about education and safety.

Absecon is 71% white, though this is the first year its own schools have been majority nonwhite. Many families from Absecon have avoided sending their children to Pleasantville — instead opting for private schools or the county’s magnet schools system, or moving out of the community altogether. Yet it still has a significant proportionate impact on the amount of white students at Pleasantville High. In the 2019-2020 school year, Absecon sent 26 students to Pleasantville — including four of the five white students who attended Pleasantville that year, out of a student body of more than 800.

The state education commissioner rejected Absecon’s petition to withdraw from its contract with Pleasantville last month — citing the impact it would have on diversity at the high school. Abscecon is appealing that decision, the Press of Atlantic City reports.

In Bergen County, the state allowed Maywood to pull its students out of Hackensack High School in 2020, instead sending them to the Henry P. Becton Regional High School District that already served students from Carlstadt and East Rutherford. When Maywood rejected a contract with Hackensack in 2018, citing costs, NorthJersey.com reported on a significant racial imbalance between the districts. In 2016-2017, 45% of Maywood’s K-8 students were white. Only 18% of Hackensack’s K-12 students were white that same year.

“Right there in Bergen County, across the bridge from New York City, you have a moment where the Murphy administration literally expanded segregation … through his education commissioner,” Francois said.

NJ-CARE argues the NAACP should be using its heft to partner with coalitions to advance desegregation policy. It unsuccessfully asked the NAACP to disinvite the governor from the Atlantic City convention (his appearance was ultimately canceled for scheduling reasons), and criticized the NAACP in its letter to Clarke at DOJ.

“The actions that other organizations take to address their ends will not determine the actions of the NAACP,” Puryear said by email. His messages were CC’d to Smith, the state conference chair.

NJ-CARE cited as encouraging progress a bill authored by State Sen. Joe Cryan that would establish a Division of School Desegregation in the Department of Education, responsible for identifying cases of segregation and developing strategies to combat it. That bill is still making its way through the state Senate and has been referred to the state Assembly’s education committee for consideration.

NJ-CARE plans to invite Murphy to a meeting it expects to hold in August with community leaders and activists in northern New Jersey. If there’s no response, Francois said, the group will move ahead with the complaint.

“Maybe this is just my optimism,” Francois said. “Our governor says he's a civil rights governor. I still hold out hope every time that when we request meetings, he will give us a meeting.”

Puryear said for its part, the NAACP has been “surprised” few legislators have lined up to support its lawsuit. It “does not blame any current or past elected officials for their actions,” he said — but only seeks a ruling that could lead to solutions.