Long delayed, racial desegregation lawsuit gets start date

JOHN MOONEY, EDUCATION WRITER | JANUARY 25, 2022 

NJ Spotlight News

Slowed for the past two years by both legal procedure and the pandemic, the lawsuit challenging the racial imbalance of New Jersey’s public schools is about to pick up again.

State Superior Court Judge Robert Lougy, the new presiding judge in Mercer County, has scheduled March 3 for oral arguments on the case that questions New Jersey’s long history of racial segregation in the schools and communities.

And after a long wait, plaintiffs led by the Latino Action Network and NJ NAACP aren’t pulling their punches, previewing their arguments in their final brief saying that the state’s hands-off defense of the racial imbalances in its public schools over the years is reminiscent of “segregationist principles” dating back a century.

“Harkening back to segregationist principles of ‘separate but equal,’ the State defends New Jersey’s practices, making clear that, whatever its promises, it takes neither this case, nor the underlying problem that it seeks to address, at all seriously,” wrote Lawrence Lustberg, the plaintiffs’ lead lawyer, in the consolidated brief filed last week.

“This is a sad and alarming abandonment of the egalitarian, desegregationist principles which New Jersey has consistently and appropriately announced as one of its jurisprudential bedrocks,” Lustberg wrote.

NJ’s schools are some of the most segregated

This specific lawsuit dates to 2018, when the broad coalition of activists filed the challenge, but the legal record in several cases goes back decades of New Jersey’s standing as one of the most segregated states in the country when it comes to school enrollment. Segregation is measured in several ways, but most cited has been the high percentage of students of color who attend schools that are overwhelmingly nonwhite.

For instance, close to half of Black and Hispanic students over the last four years attended schools where the enrollment was 90% or more Black and Hispanic. Thirty percent of white students attended schools that were more than 80% white.

“This is a fact that should not be accepted or tolerated and, as a matter of both constitutional and statutory law, the State is responsible for addressing it by taking appropriate steps to integrate its public schools,” Lustberg wrote.

Those facts are actually not much disputed in this case, as both parties have agreed that the racial numbers are way out of balance. It’s how to respond to that fact that has been the far more difficult point — and while the plaintiffs have pressed for at least a start toward a negotiation on solutions to the segregation, the Murphy administration has so far largely stepped back and argued on procedural grounds.

“The importance of attending a diverse school environment cannot be overstated,” wrote Christopher Weber, the deputy attorney general, to open his final brief.

“The experience of being immersed in a racially and socioeconomically diverse school is, indeed, a critical ingredient in the life of every child. The State recognizes the innumerable benefits of exposure to different racial, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and acknowledges that there is unquestionably room to improve the current system,” Weber wrote.

Is the entire system unjust?

But in the state’s own final pre-trial arguments, Weber has come back on more technical points, maintaining the plaintiffs have overreached in saying the entire system is unjust.

“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,” he wrote.

“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.”

“Relying on a limited subset of data and an unsound notion of segregation, plaintiffs fail to establish that students are not receiving equal protection under the law,” he wrote.

Whatever the result of the summary judgment request, the plaintiffs acknowledged the March hearing is only the start of the process.

“Granting Plaintiffs’ motion for partial summary judgment on liability will be a first step towards providing the educational environment that all of New Jersey’s students deserve,” Lustberg wrote.

“Then, the truly hard work can start: finding a way to ensure that no student is deprived of a constitutionally sufficient public education, no matter their race, socioeconomic status, or zip code.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-01-25 03:34:28 -0800