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Earlier this month, oral arguments were heard in a historic lawsuit against the State of New Jersey aimed at addressing school segregation in the Garden State. The plaintiffs cited a number of remedies to combat segregation in our public school system and said the state should be exploring all avenues to ensure we increase the number of integrated school options throughout New Jersey.
While many of these solutions would require legislative changes, the state can use its authority to act now to make more public schools a place where all children want to be and where they can thrive regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic status.
Many charter schools were founded and are specifically tailored to serve students from diverse backgrounds, and they have been successful at improving learning outcomes for all students. As schools of choice, charter schools can provide an important remedy to increase diversity in New Jersey’s public schools.
Several public charter school parents, Beloved Community Charter School in Jersey City, and the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association joined the lawsuit for two reasons: first, to respond to inaccurate allegations and make clear that charter schools are not exacerbating segregation in New Jersey’s public schools, and second, to offer concrete, tangible solutions to address the lack of diversity in our public school system.
We are encouraged that during oral arguments, the plaintiffs recognized charter schools as part of a solution. As we seek workable solutions to this decades-old challenge, New Jersey should look to public charter schools as a critical tool to advance desegregation through the creation of more diverse-by-design charter schools.
Long before charter schools existed, New Jersey’s public schools were segregated because of historical and racist policy decisions related to housing and transportation. As a result, New Jersey’s public school system is among the most racially isolated in the country. Because students are assigned to a school based on where they live, and most school districts consist of only one municipality, many schools across New Jersey lack diversity — even in one of the most diverse states in the country.
Unlike most traditional public schools, charter schools are permitted to serve children across municipal boundaries, breaking down barriers that differentiate us like our zip code, race, culture and language. Precisely because charters can draw students from a wider geographical area, they have the opportunity to overcome the structural impediment of neighborhood segregation created by municipal boundaries and develop diverse school communities for students, staff and families.
However, enrollment in a diverse school alone does not guarantee academic success. Many school districts that appear to be demographically integrated as a whole are actually segregated among and within their schools. For example, some schools differentiate academic opportunities based on race. Too often, Black and Latino students are set on learning paths at an early age with lower expectations and fewer opportunities than white students, resulting in disparate life-long outcomes.
Ensuring that a student’s race or ethnicity does not determine the quality of their education is essential. The Diverse Charter Schools Coalition works with 235 individual charter schools in 23 states and D.C. to prepare over 90,000 students of all backgrounds to become future leaders. The coalition is helping public schools successfully counter segregation and advance equity through the development of intentional and inclusive school communities.
In New Jersey, policymakers can immediately leverage the existing advantages inherent in the state’s charter law to increase the number of diverse schools across the state, including the ability for families to cross municipal boundaries to attend a school that meets their child’s needs. Charter schools are open to all students who want to attend and have systems in place — such as weighted lotteries and targeted recruitment and engagement strategies — to ensure their student populations are intentionally diverse and continue to feel a sense of belonging in school to and through graduation. By providing communities with more schools of a variety of models (from culturally affirming to single-gender to Diverse-by-Design), New Jersey can offer families the ability to choose from among diverse, high-quality options.
We should be exploring the creation of 20 to 30 new charter schools in key districts that are geographically positioned to draw upon a racially and economically diverse student body from surrounding geographies. In doing so, New Jersey can offer thousands of students new opportunities to attend intentionally diverse schools now, without the delay of enacting new legislation and establishing new cross-border funding models.
Ultimately, the court will rule on the constitutionality of New Jersey’s residency-based public school system. But our conversations around school integration need to evolve beyond platitudes and lawsuits – they must be translated into action now.
For the last 25 years, New Jersey’s charter schools have provided families with a tuition-free, zip-code crossing public school option that is student-centered, highly accountable, and wildly successful for 60,000 enrolled students annually. There is a reason why there are 20,000 students on charter waitlists today.
If our goal is to remedy historical segregation patterns, charter schools are an existing solution we can implement immediately.
(This was first published in nj.com.)