New Jersey has third highest number of severely segregated schools, according to research

New Student Convocation Saturday, August 31, 2013.
New Student Convocation Saturday, August 31, 2013.

Legal racial segregation was eliminated with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but de facto segregation still remains a prominent issue in the New Jersey school systems, according to an article by NJspotlight.

According to the research of Paul Tractenburg, a distinguished lawyer and professor at the Rutgers Law School—Newark, New Jersey has the third highest number of severely segregated schools in the nation. These schools are deemed “apartheid schools,” and their student bodies are less than 1 percent white.

"Apartheid schools" compose 8 percent of schools in N.J. but hold 26 percent of black students and 13 percent of Latino students. That means 1 out of every 4 black students in the state attends a school where they never interact with a white student, according to his report.

Tractenburg, who has been involved in the litigation and research of segregation in education for 40 years, said the reasoning for this lies in the way New Jersey separates its school districts. In the past, students from multiple towns would attend the same high school, but towns in the state have since consolidated their districts, and by doing so have thwarted diversity.

“We have districts, typically the city districts, that are pretty much 100 percent black or Hispanic and 80 percent or more are low-income students, and literally right next door we have districts that are all white and do not have a single low-income kid,” he said.

Tractenburg said since the 1940s, the number of school districts nationwide has dropped from 130,000 to just 13,000, which is almost a 90 percent decrease. Contrarily, the number of schools districts in N.J. has risen by 20 percent. These consolidated school districts are mostly homogeneous and lacking in diversity.

“We sort of stand alone in the country in our kind of love affair with local control and home rule, and how each small group of residents has to have its own school board,” he said.

The predominant model in other countries is not to have local school districts, but a national education system, Tractenburg said. 

 Although there is a lack of evidence definitively proving that racial prejudices entirely motivates segregation in N.J. school districts, Tractenburg said many authority figures believe issues of racial and socioeconomic discrimination play key roles.

People in N.J. and the United States often do whatever it takes to make sure their child has the most advantages possible. This makes them unwilling to allow their money to go to the benefit of other children, Tractenberg said. 

“I have traveled around and looked at education systems in a lot of other countries and this is not an attitude that you find,” he said.

Overall, this is is a very political and complicated issue, Tractenburg said. People are often pessimistic about the state’s ability to change.

“We have by far the strongest state constitutional laws regarding racial balance in schools, and we have one of the worst records in the country on the ground with segregation … we are obviously not enforcing our constitution,” he said.

Tractenburg said the best method of ending severe segregation in N.J. would be to reform the way school districts are cut out. Many naysayers see this as politically detrimental.

“If you believe in equal education opportunity, then you have to give more resources and maybe better teachers to the students who bring the greatest disadvantage to school. We have been litigating for 40 years in effect to accomplish that very idea,” he said.

Robert Lake, a professor at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, said he is not surprised that N.J. is near the top of the list of states ranked by degree of racial segregation. 

“We are looking at a 200-year history that has contributed to the significant degree of residential segregation by race in the state, it goes back to before the Civil War,” he said.

Lake said the multiplication and fragmentation of small municipalities in the suburbs has been used as a means of controlling access to housing and property.

“Change happens very, very slowly and patterns that get entrenched in institutional practices, policies, government actions and private actions tend to replicate and repeat themselves," Lake said.

The only way that change will occur, Lake said, is when a "concerted and targeted" attempt to uproot the system is made.

Fixing segregation today will require enough people to unite and realize it is necessary and beneficial for society, he said. Something will need to disrupt the entrenched practices of the state’s institutions that perpetuate the problem.

“You need a positive reason to make enough people realize this is worth doing and a strong enough force to convince people to give up what they perceive as their benefits from the way things were before,” he said.

Since Rutgers prides itself on its success in diversity, its students have a responsibility to make the University a place that promotes its own diversity to the larger society, Lake said.

Dan Cretella, a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore, said he is aware of the de facto segregation that exists.

Cretella believes the ripple effects of segregation before 1964 are still affecting us as a society today, he said.

“Back in the times when segregation was backed by law, it kind of kept minorities in a spot where they could not financially escape and future generations were doomed to repeat the process,” he said.

He said he finds the quasi-segregation in N.J., his home state, to be unsettling.

“New Jersey is very polarizing, it seems like there are not that many middle-class areas anymore. There are wealthy places in Morris County like Short Hills and Mendham, and then there are significantly poorer places like Newark, Trenton and Camden, which are predominantly minority,” he said.

Diversity in schools is crucial to making students more intelligent and well-rounded individuals, which would, in turn, benefit the state as a whole, he said.

Areas that lack diversity often breed racism, Lake said, whereas diverse communities have been shown to create more aware individuals. He said this was one of the reasons he attended Rutgers.

“Rutgers is super diverse and the students are very well rounded here," He said. "You meet new people, learn new things, become a part of a bigger culture and therefore a bigger movement, which produces well-rounded people."

Stephen Weiss is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in philosophy. He is a correspondent with The Daily Targum.

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