While a Superior Court judge weighs whether New Jersey schools are unconstitutionally segregated, two Republican lawmakers want to amend the state constitution to bar the kind of school redistricting experts say could help desegregate schools in the Garden State.
Sussex County Assemblymembers Hal Wirths and Parker Space introduced a proposed constitutional amendment last week that aims to prohibit compelling students from attending a public school other than the school closest to their main residence. If approved by voters, it would also bar forcing students to attend a school in another town.
“It almost seems crazy that you wouldn’t send kids to school where they grow up,” Wirths said in an interview.
Plaintiffs in the desegregation case, filed in 2018 by a coalition of civil rights and social justice organizations, argue New Jersey’s requirement that public school students attend schools in their hometowns has led to de facto segregation because so many New Jersey towns are not racially diverse.
A decision in the plaintiffs’ favor could lead New Jersey to overhaul its K-12 education system. Experts in other states say possible solutions include busing students to other towns, consolidating districts, creating more magnet schools, and removing the requirement that children attend schools in the town where they live.
Wirths isn’t confident the measure will win approval in the Legislature — Democrats control both chambers — in part due to the ongoing lawsuit.
He doesn’t believe New Jersey schools are segregated, but acknowledged “there are better schools than other schools.” He noted schools known as Abbott districts receive more state funding than the rural districts he represents, and added there are successful charter schools in Newark that give parents options.
“I’m not looking for a solution because I don’t think there’s a problem with the school system,” he said.
The lawsuit cites a UCLA study ranking New Jersey as the sixth-most segregated in the nation for Black students and seventh-most for Latinos, despite the state’s overall diversity. About 45% of the state’s Black and Latino students attend public schools where the student population is more than 75% non-white, the study claims.
Wirths said parents often make the sacrifice to live in a certain town so their kids can go to better schools.
“Talking about moving kids to other neighborhoods and other schools, I think that’s just a ridiculous concept,” he said.
A proposed amendment to the state constitution must pass both the Assembly and Senate with a three-fifths vote to end up on the ballot in November. Alternately a majority of lawmakers in each chamber could also pass the same amendment twice consecutive years before sending it to voters.
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