NJ.com: Opinion | Phil Murphy must act to ensure school integration
Posted: August 23, 2018
By: Richard Roper, Special to The Record
Having grown up in segregated Georgia, I can attest to the lifelong impression school segregation leaves on developing children. Segregation is indelibly imprinted on my psyche.
As a child, I was forced to drink from segregated drinking fountains. I had to sit in the segregated balcony in movie theaters.
Worst of all, I attended a school that lacked many of the resources available to schools for white students.
Simply recalling these memories and experiences provokes a deep sense of anxiety and depression in me.
I was fortunate to spend time with family in New Jersey as a teenager and moved here from Georgia at age 20. After raising enough money to complete college, I enrolled at Rutgers University in Newark. I was astonished by the racial makeup of the student body – 97 percent white and less than 1 percent Latino in a diverse city.
Even then I had an ingrained sense that New Jersey could do better. I’ve dedicated my career to trying to improve our state – working to reform New Jersey’s higher education system and now sitting on the Rutgers University Board of Governors.
But have we actually done better in tackling the problems of segregation that plague our state?
While higher education institutions, like Rutgers, have made strides toward recruiting a diverse student body, the situation in our elementary, middle and high schools is dire.
Today more than 65 percent of black children and more than 44 percent of Latino children are attending highly segregated schools where 10 percent or less of the students are white.
Our state may not maintain an overt system of discrimination but policy failures at the state level have conspired to create a level of segregation that is the sixth worse in the country for African-Americans and seventh worse for Latinos. New Jersey’s schools are more segregated than any state’s in the South.
Whether intentional or not, segregation is very harmful and has lifelong consequences, including lower high school graduation and college matriculation rates, which in turn limits employment opportunities and access to the middle class. Segregation is also corrosive for whites who are more likely to learn to fear and resent racial difference and who never develop the kinds of social skills that enable them to navigate racially diverse environments.
Segregation levels in some New Jersey schools today are reminiscent of my childhood in the South. And that is a clear indication we need to institute reforms.
Housing policies are a key contributor to segregation because students are generally required to attend schools in the communities where they live.
New Jersey’s towns are among the most segregated in the country.
Yet while we are making strides in addressing this problem through renewed enforcement of New Jersey’s fair housing laws, known as the Mount Laurel doctrine, we need to directly tackle the problem head-on.
That’s why I joined the board of the New Jersey Coalition for Diverse and Inclusive Schools, a new nonprofit organization coordinating a landmark lawsuit seeking to integrate New Jersey’s public schools and filed in May on behalf of a group of civil rights organizations and parents.
New Jersey is uniquely positioned to make progress on this issue. Our state has explicitly prohibited segregation in public schools since 1881 and was the first state to adopt such a prohibition into its Constitution. The New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that even de facto segregation violates students’ civil rights.
This lawsuit presents a historic opportunity for Governor Murphy and the Legislature to finally address this historic injustice in a systematic way.
Mercer County Assignment Judge Mary C. Jacobson recently ordered the Murphy administration to file a response to this lawsuit by the end of the month, rejecting a procedural move that would have delayed the case.
The evidence is clear: New Jersey’s deep levels of segregation hold us back as a state and shortchange our children. Students shouldn’t have to endure the unnecessary delay of a trial to see policies implemented to begin the process of integrating classrooms.
I was heartened by statements the governor made shortly after this lawsuit was filed indicating his commitment to addressing this issue.
Judge Jacobson’s ruling sets the stage for the governor to work cooperatively with civil rights groups to develop a comprehensive plan providing students the first-class educational experience they deserve in schools reflecting our state’s great diversity.
Now is the time for the governor to step up and lead.
Richard Roper is a policy consultant who has worked in multiple levels of government. He currently serves as president of the Roper Group, a senior fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government and as a member of the Rutgers University Board of Governors.