Education in New Jersey: Separate and Unequal?

For decades, the question as to whether or not there is an equitable education system in New Jersey has been a constant debate amongst policy makers for a myriad of reasons. Now, more emphasis than ever has been added to the dialogue by way of a report published last year which put the issue at the forefront once again with the question of why?

image2.jpegPaul Tractenberg, with the Institute on Education Law and Policy, Rutgers University-Newark, issued a joint report with the Civil Rights Project, UCLA. It’s the title that continues to have tongues wagging:

New Jersey’s Apartheid and Intensely Segregated Urban Schools

While we associate (as does the Merriam-Webster dictionary) apartheid with a despicable social system practiced in South Africa, the authors claim that New Jersey’s most segregated schools – 91 in total –  are apartheid schools because they have less than 1 percent of students who are white, and at least 79 percent are low income.

Because we, as a state, have allowed municipalities and school systems to corral many minority students into low-performing schools, this prohibits the ability for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds to interact. This practice dooms those students to a cycle of shoddy educational opportunities and “real” contact with peers unlike them, the report says.

And, the overarching link to this issue is that most of the students in underperforming schools live beneath the poverty line, so they are incapable of picking up and moving to a more affluent, better performing school.

Richard Rothstein, who studies the performance gap between better performing students and lower performing ones, links segregation directly to the root of this disparity. Statistical data tells us that many of our neighborhoods are homogeneous and lacking economic and racial diversity, which in turn contributes to concentrations of poverty and segregated schools. The by-product of this results in lower-performing schools and children unprepared for the usual rigors of attending classes.

Rothstein, research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and senior fellow of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California (Berkeley) School of Law, offers a blunt assessment:

“We can’t expect to narrow the achievement gap if children come to school unprepared to take advantage of what good schools can offer. If we concentrate such children in schools of poverty and racial isolation, raising their achievement is even more daunting. Desegregation is a necessary part of a school improvement strategy, and there is no way to desegregate schools without desegregating the urban and suburban neighborhoods of our metropolitan areas. And we are unlikely to embark on policies to desegregate if we fail to identify the racially explicit policies that created the segregated neighborhoods we know today.”

He offers a powerful indictment that calls for courage on the part of policy makers if we expect improvement. Tractenberg believes this dilemma can be fixed, but it will require an enormous amount of change and a power-sharing shift. In short, political will and legislative courage.

The Tractenberg Report offers these suggestions:

  • Fresh focus on magnet and regional schools that would allow students to cross local boundaries.
  • State-supported schools must provide “explicit goals and procedures” that promote racial diversity.
  • Halt or cut off any subsidies for “more low-income housing … where students must attend apartheid schools …”
  • Give serious consideration to consolidate school districts in the interests of “civil rights and racial balance goals.”

While I try to distill important issues to a more manageable conversation in my blog, this is one instance where you should print or download the entire report, turn on that overhead light and read it for yourself.  To read the entire report, click this link:

Its clarity, soundness and thoroughness should be obvious. And, while some may disagree with the proposed solutions, I think the debate that it sparks is long overdue.

It strikes me that while we often read stories about education, the kids themselves become a statistic or some generalization that we do not always see. Please remember that these students belong to all us. Just because we do not see them does not mean they are not there and that their success is essential to the success of our entire society. That's my take. What's yours?

Showing 4 reactions

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  • mamazeke
    commented 2014-12-08 22:06:01 -0500
    Just come to Jersey City for a perfect example of this the difference between downtown and the rest is instrumental in this comparison.
  • Deb Reyes
    commented 2014-12-05 08:30:53 -0500
    The upcoming high stakes PARCC testing will do nothing but further aggregate this situation, and will result in the labeling of schools in poor districts as failures, punish teachers, students and result in closing of many neighborhood schools who serve our state’s most vulnerable students. Charter Schools are making a bad situation, even worse, as most (if not all) of the states Charter Schools educate far fewer poor and special needs students than their host districts, while taking away much need funding from the schools who serve all students. Meanwhile communities have no say on when a Charter School opens or expands in their districts. Isn’t it time for change, that will help our state’s most disadvantaged students, instead of hurting them further?
  • Kathleen Dezottis
    commented 2014-12-04 19:49:59 -0500
    The most important part of the problem is that these cities are almost completely segregated and impoverished. Any one who can afford to leave will leave whether they are black, white or Asian. If you live in a multi-racial, middle-class community, then the education can be equal, the kids and families get to know other people from different races, religions, etc. Racial equality becomes much more likely when you work, play and live with each other. This is what is needed but will be very difficult to accomplish. I would not be very happy to have my kids bussed out to an inner-city school even though I think it would help even the playing field. I pay a ton of taxes for the schools in my district, they are great schools and it would be a real problem for a lot of people. The difficulty when bringing in kids is that they are often academically behind, and have social problems that come with them. In some ways I think the answer is to raise the poor out of poverty and they will naturally begin to blend in with the middle-class and multi-racial communities. Unfortunately the middle class is struggling right now and has its own set of problems.
  • Bill Wolfe
    commented 2014-12-04 16:19:46 -0500
    Thank you for writing about this set of deeply troubling issues – NJ’s segregated schools and communities are wrong, a vestige of our racist past that can no longer be tolerated or to continue to exist.

    Unfortunately, there are far too few political leaders willing to speak out and fight for racial and economic justice and the best interests of our kids. We appreciate your leadership pin speaking out for justice.

    In fact, Gov. Christie’s policy are making the conditions in our urban communities and public school worse – particularly his war on public schools and public unions and privatization and charter schools agenda.

    These attacks are being sold as providing “choice” to “escape failing public schools” – but that is just propaganda: we need good public schools for all children.

    Bill Wolfe

    ps – on a related matter, its time NJ’s urban communities get their fair share of open space and farmland preservation funds. That debate begins in Tretnon on Monday before the Senate Environment Committee. I would be glad to work with you or staff on some of those issues, including urban parks, community gardens, urban forestry, and access to fresh food to end food deserts.