School segregation challenge hinges on definition of ‘segregation’

TAYLOR JUNG | MARCH 4, 2022 

NJ Spotlight News

A four-year-long legal battle challenging segregation in New Jersey schools resumed Thursday, with a state Superior Court judge hearing oral arguments in what could be a landmark case once decided.

The Latino Action Network sued the state in 2018 following a 2017 bombshell UCLA report that found New Jersey schools were among the most segregated in the nation. It indicated that the state was headed “toward a segregated future with no racial majority but severe racial stratification and division.”

On Thursday, lawyers for the Latino Action Network argued there was enough evidence to show that racial imbalance existed in schools and that the state has not fixed the issue. Lawyers for the state and charter schools, who had asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, countered that there were many definitions of segregation in academia, and that plaintiffs failed to define what they were discussing. Superior Court Justice Robert Lougy made no decision Thursday; he also declined to offer a timeline for when he will decide to hold a trial, dismiss the case or find that the state must create a desegregation plan.

Thursday’s arguments centered on two questions: How to define segregation, and who gets to define it?

Generally, segregation is defined as separation by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status — whether it exists solely as a social practice or is codified in law.

In a consolidated brief filed in January, the plaintiffs, led by the Latino Action Network and NAACP New Jersey, argued that racial and ethnic demographic data for students proves New Jersey has an unconstitutional, segregated school system. Over 63% of Black and Latino students in the state attended schools that were 75% nonwhite, according to their legal brief, while about 40% of white students attended schools that were more than 75% white during the 2015–2016 and 2019–2020 school years.

Arguing that state has failed to fix racial imbalance

“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,” Lawrence Lustberg, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, wrote in the brief.

In court Thursday, Lustberg argued that the state has failed to fix its racial imbalance in schools — which it acknowledges exists — and has perpetuated the issue by allowing kids to enroll in school districts based on where they live.

Lustberg said enrollment based on residency unconstitutionally creates homogenous schools and de facto segregation because of the state’s history of redlining and exclusionary zoning.

“The state has been on notice for years,” Lustberg told the court, adding that they were upset the state did “nothing” to integrate schools.

Deputy Attorney General Chistopher Weber, representing the state, and Lisa Scruggs, representing charter schools, did not deny that segregation existed in New Jersey. But in asking Lougy to dismiss the lawsuit, Weber said that plaintiffs “failed” to define segregation, and the burden wasn’t on the state since they were simply the defendants in the case.

Making case for ‘holistic’ approach

Weber said that there was no “magic number” to demonstrate segregation exists and that the plaintiffs only used “raw data” to prove their point. He argued that a more “holistic” approach was needed — like looking at transportation to school and parents’ decisions on where they’d want to send their kids to school.

Scruggs said that plaintiffs had to do the “hard work” to establish measures of segregation to demonstrate that it exists.

At the end of the hearing, Lustberg added that the data spoke for itself and demonstrated that racial imbalance existed in New Jersey schools and that plaintiffs wanted a ruling from the court so the state would plan how to desegregate schools.

The Legislature is looking to tackle the issue of school segregation on its own, with bill S-280 — to create a Division of School Desegregation in the state Department of Education — making its way through the Senate.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-03-04 03:18:39 -0800