Princeton Board of Education meets tonight (9.4.18*) to consider whether to place a $130 million bond before voters for a November referendum. The $130 million is intended to expand local schools to provide capacity for anticipated growth in student numbers. But the decision is being taken as another – potentially far more dramatic – process is being played out. And that process might make the proposed expansion of Princeton schools unnecessary, even before it is completed.
Earlier this year, a coalition of former New Jersey Supreme Court Justices allied with minority rights activists to launch the Latino Action Network vs State of New Jersey court case. The case alleges that the state of New Jersey’s public schools do not fulfill the state’s constitutional requirement to provide an appropriate education for all students. Around the state, educational attainment varies widely in different municipalities, and minority students disproportionately attend schools with poor results. As the New York Times reported, New Jersey schools are the 6th-most segregated in the nation, for a variety of reasons, including the widespread use of exclusionary zoning:
“The school segregation in New Jersey is de facto segregation, not explicit segregation by law, as was the case in the American South before the Brown decision. It stems from a complicated mixture of discriminatory zoning practices in suburbs, poverty and personal choice, the plaintiffs claim. But it is institutionalized by a state law in New Jersey that requires children to attend schools in the municipalities where they live…”
Last week, reports from New Jersey Advance Media revealed that New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy intends to settle the school segregation lawsuit instead of trying to defend the state’s unequal schools. The case is being heard by Judge Mary Jacobson, who is also currently considering Princeton’s affordable housing obligation. If the State of New Jersey settles the school segregation case, it would require the state to identify some way to desegregate public schools, which are mostly administered at the level of local towns. That could mean any of a number of potential outcomes. Hypothetically, New Jersey could try a return to 1970s-style bussing, where students from towns like Princeton are sent to schools in heavily-minority school districts like Trenton, while minority students travel in the opposite direction. But other solutions are probably more likely…
In particular, the plaintiffs in the Latino Action Network vs State of New Jersey court case suggest that a new program of ‘magnet schools‘ might be sufficient to overcome the segregationist effect of local school districts. Under this potential program, students from an entire region, such as Mercer County, would be eligible to attend a high-quality, high-attainment school in a central location. In theory this would mean that the best students from Princeton, the best students from West Windsor, and the best students from Trenton might all attend one centrally-located ‘magnet school’. If such a proposal came to pass, it would reduce the enrollment at a number of suburban high schools, potentially including Princeton High School, as parents sought elite educational opportunities elsewhere.
Another possible solution to desegregating New Jersey schools would be to eliminate current public school district boundaries. In practice, this might mean that instead of having a ‘Princeton’ public school district, we might have a ‘Mercer County’ public school district, in which students could enroll at any of the county’s high schools. Or, alternatively, a ‘Princeton-area’ school district, which might be formed through amalgamation of the Princeton school district with those from towns like Ewing, Lawrence, Plainsboro, and South Brunswick. By welcoming students from a wider range of towns, an amalgamated school district would be more likely to be ethnically and socioeconomically representative, therefore meeting the demands of the Latino Action Network vs State of New Jersey court case.
If either of these solutions were to be implemented, the current plan to expand Princeton High School might come to be seen as very badly timed. The town has no way of knowing what the outcome of the current Latino Action Network vs State of New Jersey case will be, although it is likely that in 12 months time, we will know a great deal more. It is hard to understate how impactful the current court case might be. The ambitious and laudable goal of desegregating New Jersey’s public school districts could be as significant for the local school system as the ‘Princeton Plan’ of 1948. The consolidation of previously-segregated schools at that time was very controversial, and any attempt by the state to try something similar today is also likely to be controversial. The big risk is that Princeton may be planning for a school system that will no longer exist in two years time.
For more information about the New Jersey School Segregation lawsuit, check out this great report from Colleen O’Dea at ‘New Jersey Spotlight’.
* Update 9.4.18 (5.00 p.m.) – the School Board announced today that the vote on the school bond referendum would be dropped from tonight’s agenda, because the district has not been able to get necessary approvals from the State.