A New Jersey Superior Court judge recently issued a long-awaited decision in a case involving allegations by a coalition of students, school districts, and organizations, including the NAACP and Latino Action Network, which says the State of New Jersey has failed to adequately address and remedy de facto segregation in schools.
In a written decision issued Oct. 6, 2023, the judge of the Superior Court – Law Division – Mercer County, found that the majority of the issues addressed in several pre-trial motions were not appropriate to decide “on the papers,” and would require the parties to either go to a full trial on the merits, or to settle the matter. Despite the length of the decision (99 pages), it provides little in the way of substantive rulings as it relates to findings that the State of New Jersey has violated the New Jersey Constitution and/or state statutes as it relates to de facto segregation.
As background, in May 2018, a group of plaintiffs filed a lawsuit contending that the named defendants have violated several articles of the New Jersey Constitution and various state statutes “by failing to fulfill their obligations to remedy unlawful, persistent, and pervasive statewide de facto segregation.” The plaintiffs include several nonprofit entities that advocate for and/or offer services to advance the social, political, economic, and educational status of Latino, Black and other minority communities in New Jersey, and additionally include Latino and Black minor students – who are represented by their parents or guardians – who attend various school districts throughout the State, particularly in Hoboken, Camden, Union City, Paterson, Newark and Elizabeth.
The defendants include the State of New Jersey, the New Jersey State Board of Education, and the acting commissioner of education (the “State Defendants”). Although not initially named as defendants, two other groups of defendants have “intervened” in the litigation – the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, Inc. (and related entities/individuals), as well as those renaissance schools established under the Urban Hope Act. Both groups, referred to as the “Charter School Defendants,” and the “Renaissance School Defendants” respectively, have intervened in the litigation because their interests are implicated by the allegations in the complaint.
In their pre-trial motions, and in support of their de facto segregation claims, the plaintiffs alleged a “marked concentration of Black and Latino students in some schools and of white students in other schools.” The plaintiffs also argued that N.J.S.A. 18A:38-1 (the residency statute), is a “principal cause” of segregation in schools, and should be declared unconstitutional as applied. In their motion, the defendants alleged that the plaintiffs failed to establish “any constitutional violation and that any disproportionality in a small number of school districts cannot and does not establish a statewide constitutional violation.”
Following oral argument on March 3, 2022, the judge issued a written decision Oct. 6, 2023, denying the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment (in its entirety), but granting the defendants’ motion for summary judgment in part. More specifically, and a result of the defendants’ motion, the judge dismissed the plaintiffs’ claim that the defendants violated the plaintiffs’ rights to equal protection on poverty or socioeconomic status, and also dismissed purported violations of N.J.S.A. 18A:38-5.1, and the Charter School Program Act (N.J.S.A. 18A:36A-7).
At this point, more is unknown than is known. Whether the parties will seek to settle the lawsuit or proceed to trial will be determined over the course of the next several months and, more realistically, over the next several years. Even if a violation(s) of the New Jersey Constitution and/or a state statute(s) is ultimately substantiated, it is unclear what kind of potential remedy(ies) would be fashioned by the court. As additional information becomes available, the NJSBA and its staff will continue to provide updates.
For further information about these matters, please contact the NJSBA Legal and Labor Relations Department at 609-278-5279, or your board attorney for specific legal advice.