A lawsuit that alleges New Jersey public schools are among the most segregated in the nation – and that it’s the state government’s job to correct the racial imbalance – headed back to court on Thursday.

The suit, filed four years ago in Mercer County by a coalition of nonprofits long immersed in education equity issues, contends that nearly half of the state’s Black and Latino students attend public schools that are 90% non-white, in violation of the state constitution’s ban on segregated schools.

In court papers, the coalition argues New Jersey officials have permitted the de facto segregation to persist by requiring students to attend schools in the municipalities where they live — in a state with a history of residential segregation.

“It's not that the Department of Education didn't know about it. Of course they knew; they just have not done anything about it,” said Gary Stein, a retired state Supreme Court Justice who formed the New Jersey Coalition for Diverse and Inclusive Schools and decided to take the state to court.

The idea that New Jersey, a modern, progressive state in the Northeast should have such segregated schools was horrifying

Gary Stein

When the lawsuit emerged four years ago, officials in Gov. Phil Murphy's administration signaled a willingness to settle the claims. That effort later stalled amid a host of intervening issues — from Murphy’s 2021 re-election campaign to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The impasse, in a state where governance and policy making is dominated by liberal-to-moderate Democrats, also underscores the difficulty in addressing a problem that implicates home rule and local control of schools. New Jersey public schools typically place among the best in the country, according to several national rankings.

At a Superior Court hearing Thursday, both sides appeared before Judge Robert Lougy to argue whether the state was liable for racial imbalance in the schools. The plaintiffs filed a motion for partial summary judgment asking the judge to find the state responsible before starting discussion on potential remedies.

“Today is truly a historic day,” Lawrence Lustberg, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney said. “Today we begin to acknowledge a problem that we have seen so clearly for decades.”

The state Attorney General’s Office, however, said the plaintiffs were seeking a liability ruling without doing the work of figuring out a solution first. Deputy Attorney General Christopher Weber said the plaintiffs had not defined what constitutes segregation and needed to “develop a robust record for defining segregation not based on data alone.”

A decision from Judge Lougy is still pending.

Segregated communities beget segregated schools

“The idea that New Jersey, a modern, progressive state in the Northeast should have such segregated schools was horrifying,” Stein said.

New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the country and its 1.5 million public school students are spread across about 600 districts.

The lawsuit cites data from a UCLA study, which found that almost half of New Jersey’s Black and Latino students attended public schools that were 90% non-white in 2016. The study said New Jersey is the sixth-most-segregated state in the country for Black students and the seventh-most-segregated for Latinos.

“The big reason why we are where we are is because we have very significant segregation in housing,” said Elise Boddie, professor of law at Rutgers Law School and founder of The Inclusion Project at Rutgers. “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.”

Education equity groups have long argued in court – and with success – that decades of exclusionary zoning and discriminatory housing policies created pockets of concentrated poverty in cities that collapsed under massive white migration to the suburbs.

“White people were allowed to move up, right? And move out. And people of color were kept trapped inside these borders and then penalized for it for generations,” said Christian Estevez, president of the Latino Action Network, one of the suit’s plaintiffs.

He said though addressing housing disparities remains important, “we can't wait for New Jersey to integrate its communities in order to help these kids.”

Murphy, a Democrat, hasn’t spoken recently about the case but at a debate during his re-election campaign last year he said the state Attorney General’s Office was fighting the lawsuit on a “technicality,” because the state has to defend itself.

“The bigger question is do we accept that the legacy of slavery still exists in our state today and the answer is overwhelmingly, yes,” Murphy said on stage last October.

In the state’s latest briefs filed in court, the AG's office said the plaintiffs haven’t defined what constitutes segregation, though they don’t dispute the numbers. They wrote the proposed remedies would “obliterate” the state’s entire public school system, and went on to say the system would have to be “razed to the ground” and “rebuilt brick by brick” if the court orders them to remedy the problem.

The plaintiffs offer several fixes such as consolidating districts to give parents regional school choices or creating more magnet schools that draw from various towns.

NJ ‘turned its back’ on urban schools

Stein says before World War II, the state’s cities boasted the best schools: Newark, Jersey City, Trenton, Elizabeth, Camden and New Brunswick.

But after the war, while white people began to leave the cities, Black people were banned from buying homes in certain communities or from qualifying for federally backed mortgages. That shaped what New Jersey’s neighborhoods — and schools —looked like.

“The cities lost their tax base, and the state continued to fund public schools based on local taxes. With the result that the cities could no longer afford their great teachers to maintain their good schools and good facilities,” Stein said. “Our state had turned its back on the urban school districts.”

Stein was also behind one of New Jersey’s most lauded and far-reaching court decisions on school equity: Abbott vs. Burke. In a series of decisions starting in 1985, the state Supreme Court said that poorer districts were entitled to the same per pupil funding as wealthier districts that have more money to fund their schools from higher property taxes.

The series of Abbott decisions became the central tenet in the state’s school funding formula, which directs additional state aid to lower-income urban districts which are often educating more children needing free or reduced lunch, with special needs or who don’t speak English.

But Stein said as transformational as those rulings were, they “didn’t go far enough.”

He said no one mentioned the racial make-up of the urban schools at the time.

According to the pending lawsuit, schools in the major cities are “intensely segregated” and overwhelmingly enroll students living in poverty. At least four school districts in Essex County, East Orange, Irvington, Newark and Orange were at least 90% nonwhite in the 2016-17 school year. In Passaic County, Passaic, Paterson and Prospect Park were also at least 90% nonwhite.

‘They want to take their marbles and go home’

The lawsuit could have implications for school districts throughout the state. Consider the circumstances in these South Jersey communities.

Pleasantville High School is a few miles inland from Atlantic City. The school enrolls 900 mostly Black and Latino students and though students from the majority-white neighboring town of Absecon also feed into the campus, the high school remains 1% white.

In 2019, Absecon petitioned the state to end its agreement with Pleasantville and send its kids to another district. School officials cited concerns about Pleasantville’s low college-attendance rates, educational opportunities and safety.

But Pleasantville School Board President Jerome Page says he doesn’t want the state to end its relationship with Absecon. If it does, the high school will be 100% nonwhite.

“We're pretty much segregated now, but we're just not 100%,” Page said. “I don't want to reach 100%.”

Pleasantville Schools is one of a handful of districts that intervened in the segregation lawsuit as they fight to keep its relationship with Absecon schools. Absecon said it sends four to six kids to Pleasantville High School every year; Pleasantville put that number at 10.

“It's like, they want to take their marbles and go home, but wait a minute, if you bring your marbles, we all have something to play with,” Page said.

But the desire to break away from Pleasantville has existed in Absecon for years. Some Absecon families move out of town so their kids can attend other high schools or choose to pay for private school.

But Absecon Superintendent Daniel Dooley said not all families can afford to find schools they want to send their children to. That’s why the district’s petition to end its relationship with Pleasantville, he said, is also about ensuring equity for his students.

“Why do they not have the same options as the upper middle-class or the middle-class kids of Absecon who can pick and choose where they want to go to high school that will determine the opportunity and the future that they have?” he said.

While Absecon is 71% white, this is the first year that the municipality’s schools are actually majority nonwhite.

The Rev. Willie Francois from Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville said he understands the concerns coming from Absecon parents – Pleasantville families have them, too.

“The state must be forced to look at this and say, we owe it to the students of Pleasantville, to come up with a regional approach that draws in the resources across the region that will benefit every single child,” he said.

Dooley said the school segregation case is a different issue — like trying to make “a square peg fit into a round hole.”

He said it risks oversimplifying very real concerns from parents – and the solutions available to them now. He’d be open to a regional plan but that’s something the state would have to allow. For now, he’s thinking about his 100 or so eighth-graders trying to figure out where to go to high school.

“Pleasantville school district will not be any better or worse of a district with, or without the students from Absecon,” he said. “The fear from the Absecon residents is that statistically, they are being outperformed by almost every other school district in the state.”

At an after school study hall at Pleasantville High School, Page explained to students what the stakes were as the state rules on Absecon’s petition and as a judge gets ready to hear oral arguments in the school segregation case.

“There should be a white boy, white girl sitting right next to you and learn what they go through. But guess what? They also learn what you go through. They learn who you are,” he said. “And without that, it's just us.”