New Jersey’s “apartheid” schools

urbanschools            New Jersey condones–even abets–racial segregation in its public schools. A new report from a Rutgers University research institute calls it “apartheid.”  That sounds like an accurate description.

         It’s a system that requires nearly 100,000 African-American and Latino students to attend urban public schools that enroll only 314 non-minority students.

            The most racially segregated of these schools are those operated directly by the state in Newark, Camden, Paterson and Jersey City.  This is what an as yet unreleased report prepared by Rutgers University’s Institute for Education Law and Policy (IELP) says about state-run, racially segregated schools:

            “The problems of apartheid schools are particularly apparent in the districts operating under direct state control.  Three of these four districts have extraordinary levels of apartheid education.  These four districts account for 89 apartheid schools with almost 41,000 students.  More than half of the apartheid schools and students are in Newark where 55% of all students attend such schools.  The highest proportion is in Camden where the 28 schools account for 72% of all the district’s schools and 79% of its students.  Paterson has 12 schools serving almost a fourth of its students (23%).  Just these three districts account for 43% of the New Jersey students in such schools.’’

            An “apartheid” school, according to IELP, is one in which one percent or less of the students are non-minority.

            The report adds: “These state-operated districts provide the most dramatic evidence of the state’s failure to enforce its longstanding constitutional mandate for racial balance.  Given the fact that the state has been in charge of three of these districts for an extended period of time—Jersey City since 1989, Paterson since 1991 and Newark since 1995—it is hard to conceive of how it can justify that failure.’’

            Of course, it can’t justify that failure. For decades, no governor, no Legislature, not even the state’s highest court has intervened to end school segregation.

            New Jersey has been wracked by controversy over so-called “reform” efforts, much of it centered now on privatizing public education through charter and voucher schools.  But, whatever these efforts might do for  entrepreneurs/political bosses like George Norcross and Steve Adubato  and their business associates who promote them, they have done nothing to alleviate racial isolation.

            The IELP report cites the example of Essex County, perhaps the most racially isolated county in New Jersey, where virtually all-white districts operate within a few miles of virtually all-black and Latino systems. Even their charter schools are segregated by race and poverty:

            “Essex County has 17 charter schools, most in Newark.  Butall 17 are intensely segregated with nine having 0.0% white students, four having between 0.1-0.3% white students and four having 0.8-2.5% white students. Fourteen of the 17 have black student enrollments of 84.7%-100% and the other three have Latino student enrollments of 59.7%-72.1%. ‘’

            In an  almost exquisitely ironic way, the immense costs of trying to improve public education in urban districts—a frequent topic of complaint by right-wingers like Gov. Chris Christie—is, in effect, the price our state pays for keeping black and brown children locked up in segregated schools.

            The report notes that, while New Jersey has spent a lot of money on improving urban schools, money alone cannot eradicate the problems caused by walling up our poor and minority children in blackboard ghettoes:

Money can buy important things such as good preschool training, strong facilities and educational resources, if it is well targeted, but it does not typically buy the same kind of teachers, curriculum, level of instruction, level of peer group academic support and positive competition, and stability of enrollment of classmates and of faculties that are usually found in white and stably diverse schools.’’

The report comes close to suggesting what should be obvious—for so long as we continue to imprison poor and minority children in racially and economically isolated schools, the problems of urban education will not be cured, no matter how much money is spent trying to solve them:

‘’Such double segregation by race and poverty is systematically linked to unequal educational opportunities and outcomes.  Research has shown for a half century that children learn more when they are in schools with better prepared classmates and excellent, experienced teachers, schools with strong well-taught curriculum, stability and high graduation and college going rates.  Concentrated poverty schools, which are usually minority schools, tend to have a high turnover of students and teachers, less experienced teachers, much less prepared classmates, and a more limited curriculum often taught at much lower levels because of the weak previous education of most students.  They have much higher dropout rates and few students prepared for success in college.  The academic climate tends to be very different.  The neighborhood the school serves is likely to have far fewer resources for the positive and educational out-of-school and summer experiences that enrich the learning of middle class students and neighborhoods.  Students in segregated impoverished areas tend to experience serious summer learning loss.”

The apartheid schools are only the worst examples cited in the report, entitled “New Jersey’s Dysfunctional State Education System: Apartheid and Intensely Segregated Schools as an Important Cause.” It was written  by Rutgers law professor Paul Tractenberg; Gary Orfield, director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, and  Greg Flaxman, a researcher for Orfield.  Orfield’s group is expected to release a comprehensive statistical report on racial segregation when the IELP study is released next week.

The report also notes that many more black and Latino students attend “intensely segregated” schools that have less than 10 percent non-minority enrollment.  In fact, nearly 50 percent of all black students in New Jersey attend schools that have 90 percent or more minority enrollments.

The study adds, ‘’Although New Jersey is  a rich, largely suburban state with an educated population, with growing diversity, and a tradition of strong public schools, its black students  face far more extreme school segregation than black students in the South, the region where segregation was long mandated by state law and state constitutions.’’

New Jersey’s schools are more racially isolated than those in Mississippi and Alabama.

Segregation by race is illegal in New Jersey. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the courts looked at racial disparities in places like Plainfield, Union, New Brunswick, Morristown, Englewood and other communities. But, just about the same time that attention was paid to school funding changes, the urgency to integrate the public schools vanished.  Attention shifted from racial integration to equity in school funding.

New Jersey’s uniquely strong state law regarding racial balance in the schools has not been seriously implemented for the past 40 years,’’ the report states.

All three branches of state government sold out the cause of racial integration in the public schools—and it doesn’t look like any of them will pick up the cause again.

The report provides the no-brainer example of Essex County, a small, compact geographical area that contains some of the most rigidly segregated schools.

By many measures, Essex County is the most intensely segregated of New Jersey’s 21 counties.  As indicated, it has almost half of all the apartheid schools in the state; and it has more districts with 100% intensely segregated schools than any other county and 25% of all such districts in the state.

Essex County is compact (third smallest of all the counties in area at 126 square miles) and populous (third largest of all the counties at 783,969).  Its 21 school districts include the largest in New Jersey (Newark with 33, 393 students) and one of the smallest (Essex Fells with 242 students). Those 21 districts break down into three distinct categories:

  • Those four districts whose schools are all (East Orange, Irvington and Orange) or overwhelmingly (Newark, 84.1%) intensely segregated and whose poverty levels are between 60.3 and 86.4%;
  • Those 12 districts without a single school that is intensely segregated in terms of minority student enrollment, but where the district enrollment shows intense or nearly intense reverse ‘segregation’ (eight have 90% or more white and Asian enrollment, the others have 85.4%, 88.4%, 89.1% and 89.8%) and whose poverty levels, with one exception, are miniscule (five have 0.0%, six range from 0.6 to 3.1%, and one has a rate of 9.2% still substantially less than one-third the state average); and
  • Those five districts that are more diverse (three have no intensely segregated schools and the other two have one each) with the white population ranging from 19.2% to 51.1%.’’

If Essex County were a consolidated school district—in the way, for example, that Maryland structures its education–the problem could disappear overnight. But that, of course, would require districts like Millburn to open their schools to far more black and Latino students than they have now. The report notes that the court-ordered consolidation of Morristown and Morris Township schools has been a great success.

School district consolidation is one recommendation cited in the report for beginning the long journey toward integrated education. Magnet schools are another. Such policies carry political risks, of course, but the results might well be worth it.

Obviously, the situation could be improved dramatically if black and Latino students currently in apartheid and other intensely segregated  schools got access to more diverse and better schools and were treated fairly there.  What good policy could do, where feasible, would be to give a better opportunity to as many as possible of students confined in schools where they have very limited chances and a high probability of failure.’’

It depends, of course, on the will of the people of New Jersey—and the leadership its political leaders provide.

The future, sadly, does not look promising.


  1. Bob – thanks for this honest assessment.

    On top of the shame that anyone of conscience should feel in reading this, just think for a moment about how strong the racist denial is: it is so bad that Gov. Christie has publicly bragged about his family’s white flight form Newark.

    And virtually no one that I’m aware of – black, white, reporter, educator – has called him out on that.

    This is all part of “The New Jim Crow”.

  2. Where would I be able to get these reports? I am interested in seeing the breakdown of Atlantic and Cumberland counties and where the schools in those districts fall. I am an educator and it appears that this is something NEA or NJEA should be talking about more.

  3. We have a governor’s race coming up in New Jersey. The NJEA endorses Barbara Buono. Vote for Buono, New Jersey voters!!

  4. This goes beyond the appalling segregation in our public schools. The Christie Administration has targeted communities of color repeatedly for negative treatment and has disenfranchised community members from democratically governing their public schools. Here are seven examples: school funding; vouchers; charters; regional achievement centers and Priority schools; school facilities; state control of school districts; and forced school closings.

  5. The current administration’s voucher agenda only exacerbates segregation. We must stop using public funds to promote segregation by race, language, socioeconomic status, ability, . . . Christie’s remarks about continuing to “take money away from failure factories” remind me of another speech on the steps of the Alabama Capitol. I am awaiting his Gov. George Wallace awakening.

  6. Don’t you know the minority is the new majority?

  7. Bob,
    I would love to lay the blame for this solely at the feet of the governor who can bear its weight, but, as life-long Jerseyans, we both know
    this is a problem that has evolved for decades.
    The danger Christie poses is in his justifying and institutionalizing what was once known to be unacceptable.
    Now too, with parochial schools closing, those who had recourse to relief in “apartheid districts” have none, and it appears and feels that they have been abandoned by the most corrupt and holiest of institutions

    1. Excellent analysis. Christie provides a cover for vicious racism but he is only the latest in a long line of governors who looked away.

  8. One of the previous commenters thinks that vouchers would exacerbate the problem, but others will use the report as evidence of the need for vouchers (carefully regulated). Dr. Orfield issued similar reports about the extent of segregation in New Jersey schools when he was at Harvard. Nothing has changed, and even if vouchers could be used to make a dent, it will be more like a ding.

  9. Bob — I’m revisiting the as I explore the school takeovers as a disenfranchisement issue that targets NJ’s brown/black population. For example, I found that 23% of NJ’s Black population doesn’t control it’s schools, while only 2% of NJ’s White population is similarly disenfranchised.

    I came across this (, and am blown away that as early as 1944, NJ Supreme Court determined that “de facto” segregation of schools violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause, the NJ Constitution, and the 1881 NJ Education Law. So the continuation of Apartheid schooling has been against the law since 1881 in NJ, yet it persists and is advancing.

    I wonder is it still the law of the land in NJ that “de facto” segregation is unconstitutional? Or has that since been overturned?

    Bob Braun: I’ve recently discussed that very issue with Paul Tractenberg and he is convinced de facto segregation is as much against the law now as it was then. My own take is that “de facto” is just a term that provides cover for other laws–like zoning and the statutes that link school districts to municipalities. Clearly, the issue is not the dearth of laws but the dearth of courage on the part of political leaders and the courts to enforce equal protection doctrine. The irony is we are paying for segregated schools through increases in school funding to the cities. But, of course, now Christie is not funding the schools and he has so cowed and controlled the courts that they will not rebuke him. The corrupt, right-wing takeover of our politics is not just about one thing–it is a seamless web that is transforming our schools, our laws, our sense of ourselves as people who care about other people. Christie, who, I believe is both amoral and non-ideological, is riding this wave because of his over-riding ambition.

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