What’s crazier? Maintaining a patently inefficient system of public education that has more school districts per capita than probably any other state? Or, believing that the white citizens of New Jersey will get over their fear of black and brown children long enough to end racial segregation that is so bad it has been depicted by experts as a form of “apartheid”—the formal separation of races that was the law in South Africa before the era of Nelson Mandela’s leadership.
Tough questions, tough because the answers do, in fact, suggest a relentless nuttiness in the minds of many in New Jersey—those who would be willing to keep paying for what one state legislator called “the costliest school system on the planet” just so they wouldn’t have to live in a racially mixed community or send their children to a racially mixed school.
Call it a racism tax—everyone in New Jersey pays more than they have to pay for public education so some can live in a shrinking lily-white world.
This crazy talk—six hours of it—was the main agenda item at a little-heralded conference this week on the manicured Hopewell campus of the Educational Testing Service (ETS). The meeting was co-sponsored by the ETS—best known for its production of the SAT college-admissions exam—and by the Educational Law Center (ELC), a public interest law firm in Newark that has generated challenges to school funding and other laws
Unlike most conferences on education, the speakers at this one—educators, jurists, politicians, statisticians, experts in various fields, activists—didn’t shy away from bold statements. It was state Sen. Robert Smith (D-Middlesex), for example, who called the state’s public school system “the costliest… on the planet.”
Smith, not usually known for dramatic rhetoric, also promised that the people of the state faced “radical changes” in the years ahead—some he himself would try to generate by pushing for votes o establish county-wide school systems, others that were the inevitable results of past court decisions demanding that predominantly white and wealthy suburbs increase the availability of low-income housing. Which means allowing people with darker shades of skin to come into their towns.
“It is a change in how we live in New Jersey,” said Smith who predicted the changes in housing could not be stopped.
But what’s housing got to do with a racially isolated public school system? Plenty—and two former state supreme court justices were there to testify to that. New Jersey doesn’t have laws requiring black people to live only with black people, or Hispanics only with Hispanics.
What New Jersey does have, however, are zoning laws that prevent poorer people—who, by some odd coincidence of history, tend to be darker as well as poorer—from buying into places like Millburn or Mountain Lakes or the Mendhams, places with very good schools.
“The best approach is to eliminate exclusionary housing,” said Gary Stein, a retired justice of the state supreme court. “Those zoning laws were designed to keep towns lily white.”
Deborah Poritz, a retired chief justice of the state’s highest court, agreed housing laws created de facto segregation—but she said it in a context that was not too hopeful. The history of the court’s effort to end exclusionary housing faced “almost intractable resistance from communities throughout the state.”
Resistance from communities and from New Jersey’s loudest champion of the effort to overturn the court’s anti-discrimination rulings, Gov. Chris Christie—although neither Poritz nor Stein, both Republicans, mentioned Christie.
A number of participants were pessimistic about any hope of ending racial apartheid in New Jersey schools. Gordon MacInnes, the head of New Jersey Policy Perspectives, recalled how a former state education commissioner—Carl Marburger—made a speech in Atlantic City in 1967 in which he said it was “mathematically impossible” to integrate, say, the Newark schools that were nearly 100 percent minority.
For his efforts, Marburger lost his job and both houses of the Legislature flipped from Democrat to Republican in one election. To a veto-proof Republican majority.
“I doubt you will see any surge of interest in consolidating school districts,” MacInnes said.
But who said anything about consolidating school districts? Well, the conference itself was entitled “Bringing Students Together: The Obstacles and Opportunities of School District Consolidation.”
The session was an effort of organizers—perhaps a Quixotic effort—to create a larger context for the shameful racial isolation of the state’s public schools where 100,000 black children go to school every day without ever seeing a white student in their classes. A larger context that isn’t so obviously driven by efforts to rid New Jersey of racism—an effort that would be resisted by many state residents, even if a court had the courage to order such a ban and a governor had the courage to enforce it. Something that hasn’t been the state’s history of late.
Indeed, one of the panels had to do with the successful regionalization of four school districts in Hunterdon County, but race wasn’t an issue in that case. It simply was sensible—and efficient—to do it.
So what was really going on at the ETS in Princeton was an effort to, as one participant said, “begin a conversation” about why it makes sense to reduce the number of school districts—there are more than 700, including charters schools that are their own districts. About how, by just being sensible and efficient about reducing the number of school districts, the state also could push back on the cancer of racial and economic isolation.
Because, of course, consolidating school districts also would, regionalize systems and regionalized systems in places like Essex County would mean racially integrated districts.
Paul Tractenberg, an education law professor at Rutgers and founder of the ELC, is putting together a number of studies to show that consolidating districts makes sense—period. He described how Toronto’s unified system is far more efficient than New Jersey’s. He also is working on a study of what many consider the state’s best example of a court-ordered desegregation plan, the merger of two districts in Morris County to form the Morris School district in the 1970s.
“There were predictions it would create white flight—but that never occurred,” said Tractenberg. “The district is 52 percent white.”
During his talk, Tractenberg put together all the evils that attach to what he called “our crazy quilt system”—and racial isolation was not listed at the top. There is no “curriculum alignment” between high schools and elementary schools that are often in different school districts. The hundreds of separate districts each with its own financial problems create a nightmare in trying to put together a fair and sensible school funding system. Local participation is thwarted when parents have to deal with multiple school districts. And, yes, it sorts children by race and economic status and “fails to provide them with the exposure to diversity they need to compete in a global world economy.”
And it is an apartheid system. A racist—or, at least, racially based–system. Just in case no one has heard, that is illegal in New Jersey: The children are just waiting for a court, a legislature, and a governor brave enough to do the right thing.
“It’s a disaster of a system,” said Tractenberg. “I cannot imagine anything less efficient.”
So Tractenberg and David Sciarra, the current ELC director, put together all these ideas—a state that has strong laws against segregation; the inherent inefficiency of a system with hundreds of tiny school districts, including not a few with no schools at all.
Add to that the ideas of people like Stephen Hanson, a research scientist at Rutgers who is producing some evidence that racial isolation causes the achievement gap between racial groups; the people from Hunterdon County who were not tarred and feathered for achieving consolidation, and the bill promised by Smith that could allow votes on creating county-wide school systems.
And what did all this accomplish?
“The ideas we talked about today will not vanish into thin air,” said Sciarra.
Someday, he suggested, the courts will be challenged to end the apartheid system–and face that challenge. If groups like the ELC and civil rights organizations can persuade others that regionalizing the schools of New Jersey will create a system that is better because it is both more efficient and more equitable.
“It’s possible,” he said.