For two communities located side by side, Freehold Borough and Freehold Township are quite different.
And so are their schools.
While the Freehold Borough School District is just 18% white, with more than 80% of its students Black and Hispanic, Freehold Township classrooms are the opposite. More than 75% of its students are white and fewer than 15% are designated African-American and Latino.
And these two neighboring districts are not alone.
Statewide, New Jersey has long ranked as having some of the most segregated schools and districts in the nation. A 2017 UCLA study found New Jersey schools had a “severe segregation of black and Hispanic students” and was headed for a “segregated future” with “severe racial stratification and division.” It stated that the schools “are not serving their historical function of bringing newcomers and excluded groups into the mainstream of the society.”
But that could all change if a four-year-old lawsuit seeking less-segregated schools is successful. After months of delays and legal challenges the complaint is headed back to the courtroom this month and could mean major shifts in how racial balance is handled and where students attend classes.
In a state known for localized school districting that has most youngsters attending schools near their home, the demand for racial balance has already sparked ideas ranging from regional districts to broader choice to correct the problem.
“They need that (choice) with the way the system is set up now. You can learn things better when you are around other (different) people,” said Gus Lane, a Black Neptune resident and grandfather of several students.
Race by the numbers in New Jersey schools
The racial makeup of public schools statewide has shifted somewhat in the past 20 years, from 66% white to 46% white, due mostly to an enrollment increase of more than 300,000 and an influx of more Latino students.
But individual districts still display wide disparities in most cases. While most public schools in Monmouth and Ocean counties are more than 70% white, other areas, such as Hudson County and most urban centers, are overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, according to state data.
In Ocean County, for example, only three districts are less than 75% white, while most public schools in Mercer County are majority non-white. That includes the state capital, Trenton, which is less than 2% white.
“It’s a public disgrace to the state of New Jersey to be maintaining this extraordinarily segregated public school system,” said Gary Stein, chair of the New Jersey Coalition for Diverse and Inclusive Schools and a former state supreme court judge. “More than 275,000 Black and Latino students in New Jersey attend public schools that are more than 90% non-white. That is an outrageous statistic.”
Stein is among a group of legal scholars and education advocates who set out to reverse the situation with the 2018 lawsuit against the state that demands recognition of the problem and a solution to fix it. See the lawsuit at the end of this story.
'There is more the governor could have done'
But nearly four years after the complaint was filed in state Superior Court in Mercer County, the lawsuit is still bogged down in court proceedings. Plaintiff attorneys contend the state and the Murphy administration have continued to fight the effort rather than recognize the problem and seek a solution.
“We believe there is more the governor could have done to be more proactive in moving the case and was not; certainly politics played a role in that," said Roger Plawker, one of the lead attorneys on the case. "Whether his reelection gives him more freedom to approach it differently remains to be seen.”
Murphy’s office said he had no comment on the case, citing it as ongoing litigation, while a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Education also declined comment.
But lawyers for the state in a recent briefing on the case argued that just because de facto segregation exists, it is not necessarily the state’s job to fix it at a society-wide level.
“Plaintiffs’ claims that our system of public education,
by its very nature, violates the constitution, is wholly unsupported by the record on which they rest. Rather than addressing the particular circumstances present in any one school or district, plaintiffs fashioned a statewide challenge based entirely on a limited set of data points relating to a limited number of school districts at a discrete point in time.
“Implicit in this argument is the suggestion that any apparent disproportion in the racial or socioeconomic composition of a small number of public school districts is sufficient, on its own, to find that the state has violated the constitution across the entire state,” they continued.
The lawsuit — filed on May 17, 2018, the anniversary of the historic 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court desegregation ruling — offered a long list of plaintiffs that included the Latino Action Network, New Jersey NAACP, Urban League of Essex County and nine minor students.
It named as defendants the state of New Jersey, the state Department of Education and then-Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet.
The same day the lawsuit was filed, Murphy spokesman Dan Bryan said that "as the head of one of the most diverse states in the nation," the governor "believes strongly that we must combat the deeply rooted problem of segregation."
He later added, "the governor is deeply committed to boosting diversity in our schools.”
But since then, Murphy’s administration and the state Attorney General’s office have sought to delay matters for several years, plaintiffs contend. First by delaying hearings, then seeking to stretch the discovery process out for more than a year.
“Ultimately we feel that the state was fighting it more than it was looking to work cooperatively on a solution,” Plawker said.
Editorial: Don't defer to courts on school segregation
'The issue is now ripe'
Still, as 2022 begins there is hope that a solution and resolution to the case may be closer than before, attorneys said. Discovery finally ended in November and the next court hearing on a motion for summary judgment is set for Jan. 22, according to court records.
“The issue is now ripe to be determined on the motion pending,” said Plawker. “It is a historically difficult issue for elected officials, but as we progress as a society we think the hard work has to be done in order to make the changes needed to achieve an equitable outcome not only for our society as a whole but for our children.”
The lawsuit actually presents two issues before the court, according to Paul Tractenberg, a retired Rutgers University law professor and head of its Center for Diversity and Equality in Education who is an adviser on the case.
“The state seems unwilling to recognize, wants to play out the string and get a court to tell them they are in constitutional violation," Tractenberg said. "The authority is not limited to acting when the court finds you behaving in an unconstitutional way.”
Desegregation advocates say the negative impact of segregation is historic and clear, not only for minorities but for their white counterparts as well.
“The problem is not that predominantly Black and Hispanic schools exist, but rather that predominantly Black and Hispanic schools continue to face economic, social and structural challenges that predominantly white schools do not,” a 2020 American University report stated. “Most schools serving majority nonwhite student populations are in low-income areas, and due to funding systems that rely on property taxes to finance education, these schools receive much less money.”
"Nationwide, school districts serving mostly students of color receive $23 billion less than districts serving equal numbers of white students,” the report said.
“All of the evidence that has been accumulated on this subject tells us that all children — Black, Latino and white — benefit from desegregation,” said Stein. “Today, a majority of public school students in America are non-white so it is extremely artificial to educate people in segregated schools when we know that they will eventually be interacting with people different from their own.”
How did we get here?
Much of the school segregation is not due to specific efforts to keep schools racially divided as was done in the south decades ago, experts say. Rather, it dates back to the first housing expansion of New Jersey, particularly the suburbs, in the 1950s and 1960s.
New Jersey's constitution, enacted in 1947, seven years before the Brown decision, explicitly forbid segregation in the public schools. Yet that provision and the state's anti-discrimination laws failed to halt the steady, decades-long creep of de facto segregation.
Experts point to a number of factors. The rapid growth of suburbs after World War II drew generations of white families from the cities. Exclusionary zoning practices and racist "redlining" schemes forced many minority families to remain in the cities.
Compounding to divide is what Stein called the "medieval" residency law for public schools, which mandates in most cases that students attend schools that are closest to their homes.
The result: children of color from mostly low-income households remain concentrated in the aging cities and attend schools with very few white classmates.
The reverse is true in the suburbs, where large concentrations of middle-class and affluent white students attend schools with a small number of minorities.
“We created a system under which housing was segregated and everything we have done since has piled on to that foundation,” Tractenberg said. “Without fundamental change in the way we structure housing, we are pushing a very big boulder up a very steep hill.”
The lawsuit argues the state Commissioner of Education has the power to halt the practice but has failed to exercise them. And, it argues, that the state has long been aware of the problem.
What’s the answer?
But fixing the problem will be much more difficult than recognizing it, experts said.
With nearly 600 different school districts in the state, and most of them racially imbalanced, trying to equalize the situation seems impossible, advocates say. Part of the problem is school funding, most of which is determined by local property taxes based on local economic status.
“We don’t think it is a one-remedy-solves-all answer,” Plawker admitted. “There are a number of tools that have been tried around the country. Some of those include magnet school systems, different uses of vocational schools and elements of regionalization.”
Among the major causes of such segregation is the practice of having students attend schools closest to their homes, especially elementary schools. The benefits of this are obviously a shorter commute and less need for busing, experts said.
But the clear negative aspect is forcing some students to attend lesser quality schools, or those with a racial imbalance, simply because they are the closest.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs cite three likely options that could improve the situation: magnet schools, which draw from a wide range of students beyond the local district; interdistrict desegregation, which allows students to attend a school outside of their home district; and regionalization, consolidating or combining existing districts into fewer, larger districts.
“There are a lot of ideas on the table and we will be soliciting ideas from across the county because this is a big deal,” said Stein. “The remedial phase of this is going to require cooperation, innovation and education of the public and we are anxious to get into that phase. That I think is where this case is headed.”
In Freehold, the racial disparities between Borough and Township schools make their merger a possible solution, but one Borough Superintendent Joseph Howe finds troubling.
“I would have to examine the data presented and whatever plan would be presented,” he said. “I know our students by and large like going to school close to their home with teachers who’ve worked in the community for years that they know. In many cases we have multiple generations of families going through, I would not want to lose the community atmosphere of our schools.”
He also cited “logistical consideration to figure out. If it is the right thing to do, we need to find a way around that at a time when school transportation has been horrendous and the pandemic has only made that worse.”
School districts have been beset by a bus driver shortage going back years, which COVID-19 has only exacerbated.
Parents had mixed reactions to the prospect of a shakeup in school districting.
“If I paid school taxes to Hazlet Township then my money should go to supporting the schools in Hazlet,” said Dan Libonti, the white father of a high school student. “We should not be going backwards to the 1950s where Blacks were bused out of town or in separate schools. Special schooling like vocational is and has always been busing students to different locations."
Edie Nico, a white Middletown parent of two, said more options could be positive.
“Maybe it would be a good thing, some school districts are not at par with others,” said Nico, who has been home schooling her children. “For me it might be a better thing, we have a terrible school, it could be great.”
Jean Shott, an African-American parent of several Asbury Park elementary school students, said she saw no reason to move them: “I’m fine with where my children go to,” she said. “It is fine with me. I would not need them to move.”
For Mayra Rosario, a Puerto Rican native and parent of an Asbury Park High School student, the key would be making it easy for students to travel to other schools: “You need to have the transportation, that is important,” she said. “It is good to change things, some teachers are better than others. It would be good to change it around.”
Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, said any major districting overhaul must be done with careful consideration on its effects.
“It will be interesting to see what the remedies are. School choice has not been a way to resolve that, it has not really impacted on the racial balance of the schools in the state,” he said. “What does that mean for transportation? Most of the time when consolidation and regionalization are discussed there are two forces at the forefront — can we improve the educational outcomes for kids and can we lower the costs?
Desegregation advocates stress that nothing is decided until the first question, state liability, is determined. And even then, the solutions could be a range of options with no plans to force students into any school they do not wish to attend.
“I can’t speak to the fear any particular household has or particular town, as a general observation I think it is fair to say that the idea of desegregation creates anxiety among all of the stakeholders involved,” said Plawker. “It is a fear of the unknown, a lack of control over home rule and those were just some of the challenges and barriers that we need to work on and break down because we are trying to accomplish something that we think is vital.”
One example of a regional district that could be a model for others is the Freehold Regional High School District, which serves more than 10,000 students in grades 9 through 12. Drawing from eight communities, its six high schools not only allow students a choice in many cases, but also includes several magnet programs on subjects ranging from cooking to dance.
“As a regionalized school system, the Freehold Regional High School District (FRHSD) provides an exceptional educational experience for the students of our diverse eight communities,” Superintendent Charles Sampson said via email. “In addition to a high-quality curriculum, the FRHSD provides a multitude of extracurricular opportunities for students to pursue their divergent passions and interests. All of this is provided at a per-pupil cost lower than similar districts thanks in part to our scale as a regionalized structure. The regionalized model is certainly effective in bringing folks together through a shared sense of community.”
But even with its broad pool of students, Freehold Regional remains 75% white due to the fact that most of the communities it serves are predominantly white.
Making any desegregation solution voluntary, at least to start, seems to work best, said Susan Eaton, a professor of practice in social policy at Brandeis University and the author of two segregation-related books.
She cited programs in Massachusetts and Connecticut that offered a choice of schools in certain communities and drew enthusiastic support.
“Families like having a school close to them, but these programs show that a share of families will chose to go outside, to go beyond their neighborhood,” Eaton said. “Some for reasons of racial diversity, some for reasons of proximity to their workplace or a particular theme. The vast majority of these programs are voluntary. A court will say that a school district has to participate in this but a particular family can say I want to stick with my school.”
Closer to home, two Morris County school districts that were ordered to merge in 1971 to correct racial imbalance are seen as a successful result of diversity efforts.
The 5,000-student Morris School District combined predominantly white Morris Township schools with the more diverse Morristown students more than 50 years ago.
A 2016 report on the district co-authored by Tractenberg called it “the most diverse school district in New Jersey.” State data backs that up, showing it as 49.9% white and 51.1% non-white.
The overall approach to any solution is to broaden the options for students from different racial backgrounds so that racial balance is more easily achieved, Eaton said.
“It is necessary to think of school districts as larger and imagine solutions that are metropolitan or regional in nature,” Eaton added. “In many cases those are voluntary efforts in terms of the families participating.”
Adds Bozza: “Were it easily resolved it would have been done by now, but there are so many issues that affect people’s lives solutions are not easily identified or implemented.”
Joe Strupp is an award-winning journalist with 30 years’ experience who covers education and several local communities for APP.com and the Asbury Park Press. He is also the author of three books, including Killing Journalism on the state of the news media, and an adjunct media professor at Rutgers University and Fairleigh Dickinson University. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and at 732-413-3840. Follow him on Twitter at @joestrupp
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: NJ school desegregation lawsuit could change your child's life