A suit filed in New Jersey state court on Thursday asks the commissioner of education to declare racial segregation in schools unconstitutional and to develop a plan to integrate the state’s classrooms.
Filed on the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 school segregation case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the New Jersey suit seeks to stop the assignment of students, including those attending charter schools, solely on the basis of attendance boundaries. The suit seeks to compel the Legislature, the state education commissioner and the Department of Education to come up with a new methodology for assigning students to schools, one that would end racial segregation.
The suit, filed in Mercer County Superior Court, asserts that segregation in schools “undermines our system of public education and threatens our State’s future,” and adds that the state “has been complicit in the creation and persistence of school segregation” by adopting policies that “deny an alarming number of Black and Latino students the benefits of a thorough and efficient education.”
New Jersey is not the only state where the role of charter schools in maintaining segregation is under a microscope. A case argued in January before the Minnesota Supreme Court, Cruz-Guzman v. State of Minnesota, likewise claims that the state is failing to properly educate minority students in Minneapolis and St. Paul and segregation is on the increase due to the growth of charter schools.
The New Jersey suit was filed on behalf of the Latino Action Network, the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, the Latino Coalition, Urban League of Essex County, the United Methodist Church of Greater New Jersey, and nine school children who attend classes in segregated school districts.
The state of New Jersey, the state Board of Education, and acting education commissioner Lamont Repollet are the defendants.
The plaintiffs are represented by Michael Stein of Pashman Stein Walder Hayden in Hackensack, New Jersey, and Lawrence Lustberg of Gibbons in Newark, who are veterans of public-interest litigation.
Lustberg directs his firm’s John J. Gibbons Fellowship in Public Interest and Constitutional Law, which litigates civil rights and civil liberties cases. He argued for plaintiffs in a case that won gay couples the right to marry in 2013, Garden State Equality v. Dow. Stein has represented the Education Law Center in litigation that challenged the expansion of charter schools.
The suit says charter schools in New Jersey are as segregated as “the most intensely segregated urban public schools,” if not more so. The complaint laid blame for that segregation on the state education commissioner, who fails to carry out his statutory duty to ensure that enrollment in charter schools represents a cross section of the community.
Stein said in an interview that he sees his suit as “complementary” to Abbott v. Burke, the 1981 suit filed in a New Jersey state court by the Education Law Center to demonstrate that the state’s method of funding education was unconstitutional.
Rulings in Abbott have succeeded in gaining additional funding for urban school districts, but the case did not address segregation, Stein said. “As much as the funding has helped, we can’t have a fair education system in our state until and unless we fix this awful problem,” he said.
Asked if the suit would seek mergers among the state’s 674 school districts, Stein said “not necessarily,” and he cited a series of magnet schools in Hartford, Connecticut that seek to draw both city and suburban students to campuses focusing on special subjects such as the arts or math and science. The schools were opened to comply with a 1996 Connecticut Supreme Court ruling, Sheff v. O’Neill, which said that school districting based on town and city boundary lines is unconstitutional.
“The remedy is complicated and it will be multifaceted. It might or might not involve consolidations in certain parts of the state,” Stein said. “Do I expect resistance in certain sectors? The answer is yes—part of the effort is, at a grassroots level, to make sure people are educated,” he said.
While desegregation might bring to mind mandatory busing of children to far-off schools, Lustberg said the mandate of the case, if approved in the courts, could be carried out by “overwhelmingly voluntary remedies,” such as magnet schools. “What we have found looking at other school districts around the country is that people are often willing to travel a bit for their kids to have a good education,” he said.
Lustberg said he was unconcerned about whether the state’s Supreme Court, where four of the seven members were appointed by former Gov. Chris Christie in an effort to make the court more conservative, would buy into the segregation suit.
The complaint is replete with examples of past case law on the subject of segregation, such as 2004′s In re North Haledon School District, which said that “We consistently have held that racial imbalance resulting from de facto segregation is inimical to the constitutional guarantee of a thorough and efficient education.”
“The court, as conservative as it may have gotten, has not readily rolled back prior precedent. This court understands the value of precedent,” Lustberg said.
A spokesman for the state Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment.