Our schools are more segregated than Alabama. So why are NJ voters so blind?
9 mins read

Our schools are more segregated than Alabama. So why are NJ voters so blind?

When it comes to segregation, most New Jerseyans don’t see it as a problem: Only 12 percent of voters believe their schools are segregated, and only 19 percent want more racial diversity in their neighborhoods, according to a recent poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University.

But the reality is that New Jersey schools are among the most segregated in America, researchers note — more segregated than Alabama or Mississippi. So why don’t people see that? And how might that affect integration policy, as civil rights activists in New Jersey sue the state over segregated schools?

We asked Halley Potter, a senior researcher at the Century Foundation who has been working on school integration for more than a decade. Below is an edited transcript.

Q. Why are schools more segregated here than in Alabama or Mississippi?

A. One factor is the way the state has been divided into so many different school districts. For a relatively small state, New Jersey has more than 600 districts; compare that to Florida, which has only about 70. These small decision-making and school-funding units end up creating segregation lines that divide students by race, income, and have profound effects on their opportunities. And it is very difficult for students or dollars to cross those district lines.

Q. What do you think about the poll results that show that a majority of Jersey residents do not believe their schools are segregated?

A. On a national level, most Americans see segregation as a problem in our schools, so it’s surprising and troubling that New Jersey’s numbers are so low. One hypothesis is that many people in the northern states may see segregation as a problem nationally but don’t realize that a lot of school segregation is happening right on their doorstep. Or it may be that some people see their schools as integrated because they reflect their communities, but the communities themselves are deeply segregated. I also see echoes of the high ratings that Americans give their children’s schools, even when they see problems in education on a broader scale.

Q. Families support the idea of ​​racial and economic integration of schools in other studies, regardless of race or class. So why do white families oppose integration?

A. Even when there’s general support for integration in the polls, when you ask questions like, would you support sending your child to a more diverse school if it meant a longer commute or something that required compromise, you see that support really start to erode. So I think that’s one of the challenges of school integration: You get a lot of nodding on the bigger issue, but when it gets serious, people can be afraid to make changes in their local schools. That can lead to zero-sum thinking: a lot of white families are afraid that plans to change enrollment to increase integration will somehow result in their kids having less. But one thing that the school integration data shows is that there really are benefits for students of diverse backgrounds.

Q. Is there growing resistance to integrated schools among black families?

A. The data I’ve seen shows that there is still a lot of support for school integration among the Black community. But we also have to acknowledge the very real concerns and the history of challenges with school integration and the ways in which Black communities and families have sometimes been hurt or not heard in previous integration efforts. There are real efforts now to do it differently, to center the voices of leaders and communities of color and to connect our conversations about resources, funding, enrollment, and integration. The gaps that we see in opportunity for students are both high levels of segregation in school enrollment and inequities in funding. Trying to address just one of those issues, funding, has proven ineffective for decades.

Q. New Jersey’s school funding pattern directs more state aid to districts with English-language learners and low-income students. How does that impact this debate?

A. New Jersey is in a stronger position than many other states; it has a progressive funding formula. Although I would argue that more could be done to improve the formula. But even if New Jersey could fix all of this, would it really solve the problem? The results we’re seeing so far suggest that this alone probably won’t be enough. Back to language Brown v. Board of Education; we’ve just never seen the separation be truly equal.

Some of this has to do with the ways in which resource inequality can creep in despite all efforts to equalize the situation. There may be other factors, such as PTA funding or the quality of facilities, that need to be taken into account. And having diverse groups of students in a given space is itself a resource that they deserve to have equal access to. Some of the most interesting recent data on this comes from researcher Raj Chetty, who examines how it benefits low-income children to have friendships across socioeconomic lines and how that can lead to future economic opportunities. You can’t do this kind of thing just through school funding patterns. School integration can be one of the most cost-effective strategies for trying to increase student achievement.

Q. What are the best ways to desegregate schools without provoking white backlash and flight?

A. One strategy that’s really promising is controlled choice. This usually allows families to rank their school options; some might choose schools that are closest to them as their top choices, others might be more interested in a school with strong STEM offerings or a school that focuses on the arts. Then the families’ choices are weighted together with an enrollment algorithm designed to make sure that all schools fall within a certain range of the overall diversity of the community. Through this process, you can end up with schools that are much more reflective of the community as a whole and still give families options.

In New Jersey, where so much segregation happens within district boundaries, a key part of that conversation needs to be at the state level to see if there are ways to create larger, consolidated districts or to allow students to move across district lines. One of the most successful examples of this is Connecticut: because of a state Supreme Court case, there was an effort to desegregate schools in the city of Hartford and the surrounding suburban districts. As a result, they went from about 10 percent of Hartford students being integrated to about half of the students now being integrated. Magnet schools in the city and the surrounding suburbs can pull students in both directions. That’s one of the things that I think could be really promising in New Jersey.

Q. Do you think you can sell a solution like this when most people don’t see the problem at all?

A. It’s clear that the state needs more education about this issue, but it’s also very important to get people excited about the alternative. You’re seeing a lot of interest from families in the suburban communities surrounding Hartford who are excited about going to interdistrict magnet schools. Some of them may be motivated because they understand the high level of segregation in their communities, but in many cases the driving factor is access to an alternative educational environment that they feel would be beneficial for their child.

Q. Otherwise, segregation can be self-perpetuating, right? Affluent parents look at test scores and decide to send their children to school with other affluent families.

A. Absolutely. If you have a choice without elements that promote diversity, that choice itself ends up creating more and more segregated schools. When schools that are more segregated with low-income students and students of color get fewer resources and don’t show good test scores, that creates a downward spiral in how the school is perceived.

Sometimes families are concerned that their child will not be the only one of a certain racial group in the school. That means that even though there are some elements of school choice, in terms of choosing a school or where to live, some families may not feel like everything is a real choice for them. With controlled choice programs, families know that all the schools in their area will have some level of diversity, so they can actually start making choices based on other factors.

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