A Tale of Two Deeply Divided New Jersey Public School Systems

Paul Tractenberg | December 31, 2013


In October, a report was released about racial segregation in New Jersey schools, jointly written by the Institute on Law and Policy at Rutgers-Newark and the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. The findings were sobering, even for a state that has long been home to some of the most segregated schools in the country.

As we near the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board desegregation ruling, one of the chief authors of the report, Rutgers Law School professor Paul Tractenberg, discusses some of its findings and some possible remedies as New Jersey moves into 2014.

Despite a well-funded and politically influential campaign to label New Jersey public schools as expensive failures, on average they actually perform very well in comparison to other states’ systems. The deep and distressing problems become apparent only when one goes beneath the averages. Then, what emerge are two fundamentally different educational systems.

One, the predominantly white, well-to-do and suburban system, performs at relatively high levels, graduating and sending on to higher education most of its students. The other, the overwhelmingly black, Latino, and poor urban system, struggles to achieve basic literacy and numeracy for its students, to close pernicious achievement gaps, and to graduate a representative share of its students.

These differences have been mitigated to a degree by Abbott v. Burke’s enormous infusion of state dollars into the poor urban districts, and some poor urban districts like Union City have been able to effect dramatic improvements. But neither Abbott nor any other state action has done anything to change the underlying demographics.

These circumstances are dramatically documented in two recent jointly prepared and jointly released reports of the Institute on Education Law and Policy at Rutgers-Newark (IELP) and the Civil Rights Project at UCLA (CRP).

The UCLA report, an update of prior CRP reports about New Jersey school segregation, provides the big picture. The Rutgers-Newark report zeroes in on two of the CRP segregation categories -- “apartheid schools” with 1 percent or fewer white students and “intensely segregated schools” with 10 percent or fewer white students -- and found that they were primarily phenomena of New Jersey’s old-line urban school districts, the very districts whose students were the plaintiffs in the Abbott litigation. Because New Jersey is such a compact and densely populated state, virtually all of those urban districts are ringed by wealthier, whiter suburban districts, many of which could be considered “reverse segregated” -- having virtually no black or Latino or poor students.

The Extent of the Problem

To provide a more concrete picture of the dimensions of New Jersey’s segregation problem, in 2010, 26 percent of all black students and almost 13 percent of the rapidly growing Latino population attended apartheid schools and another 21.4 percent and 29.2 percent, respectively, were in intensely segregated schools. That means almost half of all black students and more than 40 percent of all Latino students in New Jersey attend schools that are overwhelmingly segregated.

Compounding the problem is that the schools those students attend are doubly segregated because a majority, often an overwhelming majority, of the students are low-income. Extreme racial and socioeconomic isolation conspires to dramatically reduce the prospects of educational success. And we have created that situation over decades and stubbornly refuse to alleviate it.

This situation is distressing on many levels. It offends New Jersey’s uniquely strong state constitutional mandate that schools be racially balanced wherever feasible. That command comes not only from the constitution’s provision explicitly barring segregation in the public schools, but also from a 1971 state Supreme Court interpretation of the “thorough and efficient” education clause. If students could feasibly be in racially balanced schools and are not, their right to a thorough and efficient education is being thwarted.

This situation also significantly undermines New Jersey’s extraordinary effort to provide state education aid to poor urban school districts in amounts sufficient to make it possible for those districts to provide their low-income students of color with a high-quality education.

This extreme and longstanding segregation also defies solid education research that demonstrates students of color in racially and socioeconomically diverse schools perform better academically and white students perform no worse, and they all learn to live with one another. Almost 50 years ago, in a seminal decision breaking down a major barrier to racially balanced schools -- the de jure/de facto distinction -- a New Jersey Supreme Court justice wrote that children need to start learning to live together as early as possible.

New Jersey’s extreme school segregation also works against our collective economic and social self-interest. As we head inexorably toward being a state that is “majority-minority” -- our schools are almost there already, the notion that we can largely write off poor children of color by isolating them in our uniformly poor and often dysfunctional cities should be unthinkable.

Finally common decency and morality -- whether based on religious or secular humanistic values -- should dictate that we act to dismantle this dual -- dare I say “apartheid” -- education system.

But beyond all of these important, big picture issues of law, pragmatics, enlightened self-interest and morality, there is the reality on the ground, a reality most of us see far too seldom if at all. There are fellow citizens of New Jersey trapped in dead-end, desperate lives where they feel as if they have no say over their own lives or the lives of their children, where they get no respect or recognition from those who could improve their circumstances.

Insights Into Isolation

Former New Jersey Chief Justice Robert Wilentz described the problem that isolation poses for all of us with great insight and power in 1990, almost 14 years ago, in one of the first landmark decisions of Abbott v. Burke:

"In addition to the impact of the constitutional failure on our economy, we noted the unmistakable further impact of the fact that soon one-third of our citizens will be black or Hispanic, many of them undereducated, isolated in a separate culture, affected by despair, sometimes bitterness and hostility, constituting a large part of society that is disintegrating, which disintegration will inevitably affect the rest of society. We noted that '(e)veryone's future is at stake, and not just the poor's. Certainly the urban poor need more than education, but it is hard to believe that their isolation and society's division can be reversed without it.'"

Our ultimate constitutional focus, however, must remain on the students:

"This record proves what all suspect: that if the children of poorer districts went to school today in richer ones, educationally they would be a lot better off. Everything in this record confirms what we know: they need that advantage much more than the other children. And what everyone knows is that -- as children -- the only reason they do not get that advantage is that they were born in a poor district. For while we have underlined the impact of the constitutional deficiency on our state, its impact on these children is far more important. They face, through no fault of their own, a life of poverty and isolation that most of us cannot begin to understand or appreciate.

In the intervening years, incidentally, the changing demographics in our state have accelerated. In the 20 years between 1989 and 2009, the percentage of white students in our schools has declined from 66 percent to 52 percent, and soon half, not one-third, of our total state population will be black, Latino, or Asian.

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I have been painfully exposed to the reality of isolation and estrangement in recent days because of the Newark state superintendent of schools' leaked plan to close and otherwise fundamentally alter many of the district’s public schools, including the iconic Weequahic High School, my alma mater in the days when it was at least a top-10 high school in the U.S.

At a crowded meeting convened by the extraordinary Weequahic High School Alumni Association, alumni, school staff, NTU members, parents, and community members vented their anger and frustration at the failure of the state superintendent to consult them in advance or even to inform them directly of the plan about to be implemented.

You have to understand this about state takeover and operation of the schools in Newark, as well as three other major urban districts, Jersey City, Paterson and Camden -- it is seemingly endless (Newark was taken over in 1995, Jersey City in 1989, Paterson in 1991 and Camden only recently). It has produced scant, if any, improvement in student achievement, school and district staffing, educational management, and facility and infrastructure modernity and safety, and it is overseen mainly by people with no prior connection with urban New Jersey and, often, with only limited experience in the schools.

Even worse, the main focus of state takeover and operation was to have been the building of local capacity to run local schools, the norm everywhere in New Jersey except in the poorest urban districts. But the state has entirely ignored and subverted that legislative command. The Newark school district’s central office is like a ghost town, populated mainly by high-priced consultants whose role, compensation, and tenure in Newark are acidulously shielded from the public eye. School staffing is declining with dozens and dozens of teachers and other staff to get their walking papers as a result of the just-leaked “reform” plan.

Shifting the Blame

To add insult to injury, the state education authorities recently defended a lawsuit seeking the return of local control by starting their legal brief with a litany of how awful education in Newark is -- as if that’s someone else’s fault. The unstated but obvious message was “since we’ve done such an awful job in operating the Newark schools, you, the court, have to leave us in control.” And amazingly that argument prevailed. Can you understand how Newark’s parent, students, and other residents feel?

Notwithstanding all these imperatives and the impossibly harsh reality of life in urban New Jersey for more than a million of our fellow citizens, we have done almost nothing to address our state’s extreme school segregation and its pernicious effects. Almost 10 years ago, Deborah Poritz, as the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, remarked in an opinion touching on race that “[w]e have paid lip service to the idea of diversity in our schools, but in the real world we have not succeeded.” The reports issued a short time ago demonstrate that the intervening years have not altered that distressing comment.

So what can be done about this huge and growing problem? There is no shortage of viable solutions that have worked elsewhere, only a question of whether we can summon up the will and enlightened self-interest to move forward, to liberate ourselves from a narrow-minded, defeatist attitude that has held us captive for far too long.

We could develop a system of very high-quality regional magnet schools that are good enough to attract students of all races and socioeconomic strata from multiple school districts. Connecticut has done precisely that in its very successful program triggered by the racial and economic isolation of students in the Bridgeport school district. Those magnets are so strong that they have produced waiting lists of students of every race and socioeconomic grouping.

Close as Connecticut is, we don’t have to look even that far for a model. Right here in New Jersey, county vocational districts have shown that, if your schools are good enough, the best students will come from across the county. According to the most recent U.S. News and World Report ranking of New Jersey high schools, five of our top 10 are operated by county vocational districts, three by Monmouth County alone.

And an even more recent study of average SAT scores found that, remarkably, the top 10 high schools in New Jersey by that benchmark are all operated by county vocational districts. Of course, students have to test into most of those schools, but that’s not the only way to structure highly attractive magnet schools with an explicit civil rights/diversity agenda.

New Jersey already has in place other cross-district programs, such as the increasingly popular interdistrict public school choice program and charter schools. The racial and economic diversity dimensions of both those programs could be substantially ratcheted up to make them effective vehicles for promoting diversity.

We can reach beyond education to induce state and local governments not to build or subsidize more low- and moderate-income housing in areas where students already attend apartheid schools and usually live in apartheid neighborhoods. Indeed, all state and local legislation, regulations, and policies could be rigorously screened to ensure that they promote, rather than impede, racial and economic diversity of communities and their schools.

NJ's Virulent Home Rule

Finally, we could once and for all confront New Jersey’s particularly virulent form of home rule. Consolidation of school districts and municipalities is routinely referred to as “a political third rail.” For three-quarters of a century this attitude has disabled us from addressing the gross inefficiencies -- fiscal, educational, social, and constitutional -- of our crazy quilt of undersized and colossally expensive municipalities and school districts. A former speaker of New Jersey’s Assembly, Alan Karcher, referred to it in a book title as Multiple Municipal Madness. As citizens and taxpayers, we excoriate politicians for our property taxes, by far the highest in the nation, but we cling with equal passion to our costly and dysfunctional governmental bodies.

During a period from the 1930s to date, as the number of school districts nationwide has dropped from well over 100,000 to less than 15,000, our state has significantly increased the number of its districts to 603 according to the NJDOE website. We have resisted recommendations of repeated blue ribbon commissions to rationalize our educational system by reorganizing it and dramatically reducing the number of districts (as, by the way, our neighbor Pennsylvania has done).

If we could get beyond our fetishistic attachment to home rule, there are many ways to consolidate districts, either on an individual or statewide basis. Examples of both abound. The Morris School District was created in 1973 out of the adjacent Morristown and Morris Township districts, one increasingly black and lower-income, the other overwhelmingly white and middle to upper income. It was created primarily for racial balance and allied educational reasons.

Despite initial start-up issues, 40 years later the Morris School District is an amazing success story. It may be the most racially and socioeconomically balanced district in the state, it sends 93 percent of its students on to higher education, and it is widely considered to have been primarily responsible for Morristown’s ability to flower as the state’s leading county seat.

Yet few New Jerseyans are even aware of the existence of the Morris School District, let alone its unique history. By the way, other urban districts sought to follow in Morris’ footsteps in the early to mid-1970s, and again in the mid-1980s, but they were denied that opportunity.

The result is that today we have the Plainfield, New Brunswick, and Englewood districts standing in stark contrast to Morris as overwhelmingly minority and low-income districts with huge educational problems and in proximity to surrounding predominately white and upper-income districts that once sent their students to them when the urban districts were themselves more diverse.

Many states, including some with highly ranked education systems, have county school districts. If New Jersey adopted that model, it would have 21 school districts instead of an absurd 603. The Canadian province of Ontario, where I spent the first part of a sabbatical year this fall studying successful education reform processes, recently has consolidated, or as they call it amalgamated, its school districts.

Ontario now has 72 districts for 2.1 million students, as compared to NJ’s 603 districts for 1.36 million students. For the mathematicians among you, that means Ontario’s average district has 29,177 students; NJ’s has 2,255. Oh, by the way, Toronto’s students, diverse racially and economically, are the world’s highest performing English-speaking students based on the global gold standard, the PISA tests, and its per-pupil spending is about 60 percent of New Jersey’s.

Despite this NJ history (and the relevant experience of other states and countries), we are told, as if it has the ring of gospel, that it is impossible to deal with New Jersey’s extreme problems of racial and socioeconomic isolation and segregation. That is so despite the well-documented severity of the problem, the dire consequences for our state if we don’t deal with it, and the availability of successful solutions in other countries, in nearby states and in New Jersey itself.

And exactly why is that the confident prediction. Is it because these remedies are too radical for New Jersey?

In fact, if there’s one thing that Gov. Chris Christie, Commissioner Cerf, and I agree on it’s that fundamental, perhaps even radical, reform is required to upgrade urban education to a level that will afford the 290,000 students in New Jersey’s poor urban districts a high-quality education enabling them to be productive citizens carrying their full share of the state’s burdens and enjoying a full share of the state’s rewards. In truth, Abbott v. Burke has been a radical effort to reform funding and educational programs in poor urban districts. And make no mistake, the current Christie/Cerf reform agenda is a radical one involving:

  • long-term state operation of the largest urban districts;

  • labeling of urban schools as “failure factories”;

  • closing supposedly failing schools and replacing them with experimental programs;

  • reducing the role of teacher unions and the job security of teachers;

  • Evaluating teachers based on ever-changing student tests and rewarding teachers with so-called merit pay; and

  • promoting publicly funded voucher programs for parochial schools.

By the way, this is a reform agenda totally unlike the ones that have succeeded in other states and nations. Indeed, knowledgeable and thoughtful people in other countries with successful educational reforms are flabbergasted that we, in the United States and in New Jersey, actually are proceeding in the way we are, against all evidence and experience.

The reform agenda proposed in the IELP and Civil Rights Project reports is hardly more radical than the Christie/Cerf agenda, and there are two major differences between the agendas -- IELP/CRP’s is constitutionally mandated and Christie/Cerf’s is constitutionally suspect, and IELP/CRP’s is evidence based and Christie/Cerf’s ignores or defies the best evidence.

Illustratively, as to the IELP/CRP agenda:

  • Many post-Brown studies, including those of Professors Robert Crain and Roslyn Mickelson, show that desegregation has improved the educational achievement of minority students while not impeding the educational achievement of white students;

  • Many studies, including Professor Amy Stuart Wells’ and other very recent ones, demonstrate the benefits of diversity on social learning and post-schooling attitudes;

  • Richard Kahlenberg’s important work shows the educational benefits of socioeconomic diversity in schools;

  • The extraordinary recent successes of New Jersey’s county vocational district magnet schools, as well as the widespread and longstanding use of county districts in many states, including Virginia and Maryland, augur well for at least a pilot of a county-wide district, with the compact and deeply segregated Essex as the most obvious candidate (more about that below);

  • The extraordinary long-term success of mandatory consolidation in the Morris School District is well documented but completely ignored for decades;

  • The widely-reported success of the Bridgeport, Connecticut cross-district magnet program demonstrates how a nearby, very comparable state with poor urban areas like ours can move ahead constructively to deal with a similar problem; and

  • The educational and fiscal inefficiencies of New Jersey’s crazy quilt of more than 600 school districts, about half of which are too small to operate a full K-12 educational program, have been documented by countless blue ribbon commission reports and a leading book recommending consolidation and shared services.

The Christie/Cerf Agenda

By contrast, the “evidence” regarding the Christie/Cerf agenda shows that:

  • Long-term state operation of large urban districts is an unmitigated disaster, as the state has frequently acknowledged yet clings to;

  • According to the great weight of serious studies, private for-profit operation of public schools, public funding of private, mostly parochial schools, and most public charter schools have produced little or no substantial and sustained improvements in student achievement;

  • Replacing existing public schools with experimental “turnaround” schools is no assurance of substantial and enduring improvement; and

  • School vouchers have been overwhelmingly rejected by the public every time they have been put to a referendum.

The use of Essex County as a pilot for the county school district model requires elaboration. By the usual New Jersey political calculus, it is a solution with no chance of being tried. It runs afoul of some formidable political bosses and some very wealthy and influential suburban residents. It runs head-on into the glib and dismissive badmouthing of cities like Newark, Irvington, East Orange, and Orange. If there was ever a quintessential political third rail, this seems like it.

Yet Essex County, although it is quite populous, is one of New Jersey’s smallest and most compact counties. You can drive from one end of it to the other in not much more than 30 minutes. In other times, Verona actually implemented a voluntary program under which students came from Newark to attend the Verona schools and that was not seen as logistically or politically infeasible.NJ's Most Segregated County

Essex County is also by far the state’s most segregated county. Its 21 school districts include four that are urban, desperately poor, and almost entirely populated by students of color; five that are relatively diverse, two (Montclair and South Orange-Maplewood) by conscious choice; and 12 that are overwhelmingly white and higher-income with virtually not a single low-income student.

These extraordinary disparities, and frightening isolation and separation, literally exist side by side. If ever there seemed to be a situation that met the New Jersey Supreme Court’s constitutional standard -- that schools have to be racially balanced “wherever feasible” -- Essex County seems to be it. And if Brown v. Board of Education and its implementation in the South established anything, as a matter of law, it was that politically and racially inspired opposition to a constitutional command could not succeed.

Now it’s time for us to decide. Do we stay with the status quo of two separate and unequal state systems of education, or, if we don’t, do we embrace a “radical” reform approach based on constitutional imperatives and the best available evidence or one that defies the constitution and the evidence?

These questions are too important to answer based on ideology or gut feelings. And they’re certainly too important for us to defer to untutored decisions by state political and education officials and to their top-down edicts.

We desperately need an informed and thoroughgoing public discussion, with all the stakeholders -- and that means all of us who live, work, and study in New Jersey -- given a full and fair opportunity to weigh in on this crucial question.

It’s long past time for us to figure out who we are and what kind of a state we want to live in.

Paul Tractenberg is Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor and Alfred C. Clapp Distinguished Public Service Professor at Rutgers School of Law-Newark, where he has been since 1970. In 1973, he founded, and for three years directed, the Education Law Center, which has represented the state’s 300,000 urban students in the landmark case of Abbott v. Burke. Professor Tractenberg established and now co-directs the Rutgers-Newark Institute on Education Law and Policy. He also co-directs the Newark Schools Research Collaborative.

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