New Jersey’s public schools are among the nation’s most segregated, according to research and a lawsuit moving forward against the state.
Yet most residents don’t see a problem, according to a new poll.
The Rutgers-Eagleton/Fairleigh Dickinson University poll, released Monday, concluded that 83 percent of New Jerseyans said their school district has a “good mix of races and ethnicities,” compared with 14 percent who said their schools were segregated.
Nearly two-thirds, or 64 percent, of the 1,250 respondents surveyed in March said their schools’ diversity levels are “fine the way they are,” the poll found. (Its margin of error was 3.6 percentage points.)
The findings may be why a lawsuit filed last year seeking to desegregate New Jersey’s schools hasn’t received more attention, said Peter Woolley, founding director of the School of Public and Global Affairs at Fairleigh Dickinson.
“This is a topic that people in New Jersey don’t discuss,” Woolley said. “It’s hard to resolve a problem that the public does not see as a problem.”
A coalition of civil-rights advocates and students sued the state last year, alleging that New Jersey has been complicit in creating and maintaining “one of the most segregated public school systems in the nation.”
Gary Stein, a former state Supreme Court justice and chairman of the coalition, said the new poll’s findings were “just diametrically inconsistent with the facts that we are alleging in the complaint.”
“It’s almost silly to debate it, because the facts on the ground are so clear,” Stein said.
Despite New Jersey’s diversity — nonwhites make up nearly 45 percent of the state population, census figures show — many students are attending schools that are racially lopsided. In 2016-17, according to the lawsuit, New Jersey’s public-school population was close to evenly split between whites — who made up 45 percent of students — and blacks and Hispanics, who accounted for 43 percent.
But the racial breakdowns of their schools were not nearly so even, with black and Hispanic students concentrated in mostly nonwhite schools.
Close to half — 46 percent — of black and Hispanic students attended schools that were more than 90 percent nonwhite, according to the lawsuit. Meanwhile, 43 percent of white students attended schools that were at least 75 percent white.
A 2017 report by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project found that New Jersey ranked sixth among states for segregation of black students, and seventh for segregation of Latinos.
Yet, New Jerseyans are more likely than people nationwide to say their schools have a “good mix” of races, and to approve of their schools’ current levels of diversity, Woolley said, based on national polling by Fairleigh Dickinson earlier this year.
The results are “interesting for a very blue state,” Woolley said, and possibly a result of the structure of New Jersey’s school system. New Jersey has about 600 school districts, in contrast to states with larger regional districts that draw from a number of municipalities and tend to be more diverse.
Public opinion in New Jersey “certainly seems to be a consequence of the design — a consequence of lots of small districts with high walls,” Woolley said, referring to state rules that students attend school in the districts where they live. The lawsuit is seeking to upend that requirement.
Woolley said people may also be reluctant to describe their schools as “segregated.” While the poll only used the term once — at other times asking respondents whether their schools represented a mix of “racial and ethnic backgrounds” — Woolley said “the word segregated has bad connotations.”
“Very few people want to think something bad is going on in their town,” he said. “Clearly there are not shared notions of what constitutes segregation.”
The poll found white New Jerseyans were more likely to describe their schools as racially diverse than nonwhites. Whites were also more likely to describe their schools as mostly white.
“It raises an important question: For a white suburban resident, what really constitutes diversity? Is diversity 5 percent Latino and 5 percent black? Or is it 25 percent Latino and 25 percent black?” Woolley said.
Nonwhite New Jerseyans were more than twice as likely to say they wanted more racial and ethnic diversity in their schools, the poll found: 38 percent said they wanted more diversity, compared with 18 percent of whites.
Stein, of the coalition pushing the desegregation lawsuit, said facts matter rather than the public’s perception.
“Perhaps the result of the litigation will change their mind,” Stein said. He said the suit is continuing to move toward “a disposition in court” after settlement negotiations with the state broke down last year. A spokesperson for Gov. Phil Murphy declined to comment.