A group of nonprofits argued before a New Jersey judge on Thursday that the state needs to be held accountable for allowing the segregation of its schools.

The nonprofits, which include the Latino Action Network, NAACP New Jersey and the Urban League of Essex County, sued the state in 2018, alleging New Jersey’s schools are unconstitutionally segregated and among the least racially balanced in the country.

Lawrence Lustberg, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the case 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.”

New Jersey is the sixth-most-segregated state for Black students and the seventh-most-segregated for Latinos in the country, according to a UCLA study cited by the plaintiffs.

“More than anything it is about the children who attend those schools,” Lustberg told Mercer County Judge Robert Lougy.

Both sides were in court for a hearing on whether the judge should grant partial summary judgment and find the state liable for its poorly integrated schools. Almost half of New Jersey’s Black and Latino students attend public schools that are 90% non-white.

There is no magic number or bright-line rule out of which integration or segregation can be pinpointed, even with respect to just one district or community.
Christopher Weber, NJ deputy attorney general

The state, which was represented by the New Jersey attorney general’s office, said the enrollment numbers in the complaint aren't enough to prove segregation. Deputy Attorney General Christopher Weber didn’t dispute the numbers but said the plaintiffs “need to do the hard work” to investigate the root causes of these racial imbalances and figure out how to fix them before any ruling of liability.

“You can only identify liability by identifying the remedy,” Weber said.

He also suggested that individual choice and the location of private schools could be contributing to the demographic composition of schools.

“There is no magic number or bright-line rule out of which integration or segregation can be pinpointed, even with respect to just one district or community,” he said, adding that plaintiffs had not defined what constituted a segregated school.

“[The definition] of segregation is an undeveloped theory in this case,” Weber said.

The nonprofits have argued that requiring students to attend schools in the municipalities where they live only perpetuates past injustices of exclusionary housing laws and rules that banned Black people from buying homes in certain neighborhoods or qualifying for federally-backed mortgages.

In the state’s latest briefs filed in court, the AG's office said 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.

Lustberg said should the parties get to the remedial stage of the case, the process will be robust, inclusive and transparent and include lawyers, the state Legislature, the executive branch, and the towns families that are impacted.

A ruling from the judge is still pending.