Sixty years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision prohibiting segregation in public schools, New Jersey remains one of the most segregated states in the nation.
The reason has less to do with race than socioeconomics, but the result is the same. Minority students, especially poor minority students, are still more likely to attend school with other minority students than with white students.
“There is socioeconomic isolation,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which advocates on behalf of poor children. “But it’s hard to get the conversation going. District boundaries make it hard.”
New Jersey has compensated for its economic segregation by sending billions of dollars in extra state aid to the poorest urban school districts. But dollars can’t make up for the social isolation that can affect students of all races when segregated.
A 2013 report by the University of California Los Angeles Civil Rights Project found that despite an increase in the number of Hispanic and Asian children in the state, a majority of students in suburban schools continue to be white, while the majority of students in urban schools are minority. That disparity was actually greater in South Jersey, where an average 63 percent of students in suburban schools are white compared with 51 percent in northern and central New Jersey.
This was evident at a recent panel at Richard Stockton College, hosted by the college’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, during which minority students talked about coming from high schools with integrated or predominantly minority enrollment to a state college where almost 75 percent of the students are white. They said they experience an almost unintentional racism, where white students will say things they don’t even seem to realize are racist.
“It was a culture shock,” ShaQuaisa Wilcox, of Camden, said of coming from an integrated vocational high school to predominantly white Stockton. “I was used to being around Caucasians, but I wasn’t used to being around Caucasians who were not used to being around diversity and black people.”
She said the result is that most minority students tend to stick with each other, the exact opposite of the diversity Stockton tries to promote.
Professor Donnetrice Allison, president of the Council of Black Faculty and Staff, said Stockton is the most diverse it has been, but many students are not used to diversity.
“I’ve had students tell me, ‘You are my first black teacher,’” she said. “Most of us grew up in areas where everyone looked like us.”
A 1947 provision in the state constitution specifically prohibits segregation in public schools. But students by law attend school in the town where they live, so schools reflect their communities.
A 2013 report by the Institute on Education Law and Policy at Rutgers University noted that so-called “apartheid schools,” which have fewer than 1 percent white students, make up 8 percent of all schools in New Jersey, but house 26 percent of all black students and 13 percent of all Hispanic students. New Jersey ranks third behind Illinois and Michigan in the percentage of black students in apartheid schools, and fifth in the percentage of Hispanics in apartheid schools.
One big difference in the past 20 years has been the increase in Hispanic students, who now make up the about 43 percent of the students in urban schools in South Jersey, according to the report.
A review of school enrollment in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties shows a decrease in the population of white and black students, and an increase in Hispanic students over the last decade. Statewide white students now make up just under half of all students in 2013-14, down from almost 60 percent in 2003-2004. The percentage of Hispanic students has jumped from 17 percent to 24 percent. Asians have increase slightly from 7 percent to 9 percent and blacks have dropped slightly from 18 percent to 16 percent.
But schools have not necessarily become more integrated. Locally, Atlantic County comes closest to matching the statewide distribution in 2013-14. But almost half of all of the black students and more than 40 percent of Hispanic students attend school in either Atlantic City or Pleasantville.
Pleasantville has shown among the biggest shifts in diversity, but only in that Hispanic students now make up the majority, or 55 percent of all students, up from 33 percent 10 years ago. The percentage of black students has dropped from 63 percent to 38 percent. Asians and white students still make up only about 3 percent of enrollment and a small percentage identify as being of two races or are unidentified.
School enrollment in Ocean and Cape May counties is overall more than 75 percent white. In Cumberland County’s three largest school districts, white students make up 25 percent of the enrollment in Vineland, 47 percent in Millville and just 6 percent in Bridgeton.
Terry Kuhnreich, who teaches a course called Conscience of Man at the Vineland High School, said diversity improves the class by bringing in many different points of view. Students also come from different countries and cultures, giving a more global perspective. Discussions will even bring out subtle or unintentional biases students don’t even realize they have.
“It’s very important to have that mix,” she said. “I get so many different points of view. I couldn’t do that everywhere.”
Suburban districts in South Jersey have become more integrated, but that has not always been reflected in state funding. The Abbott vs. Burke legal case brought billions of dollars to the 31 designated urban districts, but that money has not flowed as much into suburban districts. A new state school funding formula in 2008 was supposed to make sure the state aid followed the child, but the formula has never been fully implemented.
Egg Harbor Township most closely reflects the overall county numbers, and is among the more integrated districts in the county. According to the state funding formula, the district should get almost $8 million more in state aid than has been proposed for 2014-15. Superintendent Scott McCartney said much of that aid would reflect the increased population of at-risk, bilingual and special needs students.
The introduction of charter schools and the Interdistrict Public School Choice program offered an opportunity to promote integration, but so far most charter schools have been located in urban centers and in some cases are even more segregated than the public schools. County vocational schools offer opportunities for integration, but are most effective in counties like Atlantic that already have some diversity.
The Rutgers report recommended that the state set goals to promote more diversity in the charter and choice programs. It also recommended that the state consider school consolidations to promote civil rights and racial balance.
Former Gov. Jon S. Corzine also had promoted school consolidation, mostly to save money, but his proposals died when he left office. Sciarra said he thought programs promoted by Corzine could have encouraged more voluntary integration, but there is little interest now.
“It’s an almost impossible conversation,” he said. “We’re kind of stuck where we were 50 years ago.
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