Civil rights group: If NJ won’t tackle school segregation, we’ll call in the feds

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Civil rights group: If NJ won't tackle school segregation, we'll call in the feds


A coalition of New Jersey racial justice activists is looking to the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to intervene in what it says has been intolerable inaction by the state around school segregation.

The New Jersey Coalition Against Racial Exclusion, or NJ-CARE, hand-delivered a letter to Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke at last week’s NAACP convention in Atlantic City. The letter says the coalition will soon file a federal complaint alleging New Jersey uses federal funds “to knowingly promote and perpetuate one of the most segregated and unequal public school systems in the nation.”

“The Department of Justice has the right to investigate, to look into any claim of school segregation because of its own federal statutes,” the Rev. Willie Francois, co-chair of the coalition, told Gothamist.

The move highlights a contrast in strategy with other local civil rights groups, including New Jersey’s largest. Since 2018, the state NAACP conference and Latino Action Network have been plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging New Jersey violates its own constitution by letting segregation fester — citing a 2017 UCLA Civil Rights Project Study that described New Jersey schools as among the nation’s most segregated, and that found nearly half of all Black and Latino students attended public schools that were at least 90% non-white.

Once such a ruling is in hand, the state NAACP told Gothamist this week, it’ll be time to start advancing policy proposals.

But NJ-CARE — the Building One America civil rights organization’s New Jersey project, which says it’s made up of more than two dozen member organizations including faith groups, union locals, NAACP chapters, and community groups — says holding out hope for a court ruling is not enough. It says state legislators and Gov. Phil Murphy should have been moving ahead with policies to integrate New Jersey’s schools for years.

Instead, Murphy “has used this litigation as a cover for doing nothing,” Francois said. And the group, in its letter, also accuses NAACP State Conference President Richard Smith of positioning himself as a “gatekeeper” to the governor on segregation, excluding groups like NJ-CARE from any discussions.

The group has cited the governor’s close ties with the NAACP — he’s a former national board member — and the Philip and Tammy Murphy Family Foundation’s donations to the national organization before Murphy became governor. It also cites Murphy’s approval of $2 million in state funds for the NAACP convention.

The DOJ acknowledged receiving the letter, but declined any further comment. The governor’s office deferred any comment on any pending litigation to the state Attorney General’s Office, which declined to address NJ-CARE’s threat of a federal complaint as well, and in turn deferred to the governor’s office to discuss broader policy.

Alyana Alfaro Post, press secretary for Murphy, told Gothamist by email that “learning in a diverse classroom environment is critical for the education of every child in New Jersey.” She pointed to the state’s recent investments in preschool education expansion, housing, and communities, and the creation of a Wealth Disparity Task Force as demonstrations of that commitment.

But anti-segregation activists — including those from the NAACP and NJ-CARE — say it’ll take much more targeted measures to address segregation in New Jersey. And NJ-CARE says it would hold off on any federal complaint if it sees signs of engagement or action by the Murphy administration. If NJ-CARE does move ahead with a federal complaint, it could take months or years to adjudicate that matter as well.

“The governor can act now,” Francois said. “And if the governor acts now, then we don’t have to worry about federal intervention.”

Awaiting a court decision

Parties on all sides are awaiting Judge Robert Lougy’s ruling on arguments made in March. The NAACP, Latino Action Network and other plaintiffs want Lougy to find New Jersey liable for permitting segregation by requiring New Jersey students to attend schools in the communities where they live, which have often been made racially imbalanced by a history of white flight and discriminatory housing practices.

The state has countered that the plaintiffs should propose specific solutions before seeking a liability ruling, and that they should “develop a robust record for defining segregation” that doesn’t rely on demographic data alone. NAACP education chairperson Tom Puryear told Gothamist believe the plaintiffs’ legal counsels offering the court policy prescriptions before a ruling recognizing New Jersey’s schools as unconstitutionally segregated would be “putting the cart before the horse.”

But plaintiffs in the case have offered some fixes, such as consolidating districts to give parents regional school choices or creating more magnet schools that draw from various towns.

NJ-CARE shares some of those goals. It also advocates for measures such as giving the state Department of Education more enforcement authority in cases where segregation is taking place, and prohibiting school “secessions” in which largely white communities break away from more integrated districts.

New Jersey’s constitution says no one will be segregated in public schools “because of religious principles, race, color, ancestry, or national origin.” Even if the court does rule for the plaintiffs, Puryear acknowledged, it’ll take “a Herculean effort to develop a solution” that will satisfy that requirement.

“A successful lawsuit will nullify the ‘perception’ that New Jersey’s schools operate under the guise of ‘home rule,'” he said, referencing the principle of local governments’ control over local matters. “There is no ‘home rule’ as it relates to NJ’s schools. The state alone has the responsibility to assure that all New Jersey children receive a thorough and efficient education.”



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