I came to America as an immigrant in the 1970s, settling with my family in East Orange. As I began to attend the public schools, I experienced firsthand the two different worlds in which New Jersey students remarkably live. My junior high school and high school housed classrooms that were under-resourced, stocked with outdated books and obsolete equipment. A mere 20 minutes way in Livingston and Maplewood, students attended well-supplied and well-equipped public schools, some of the highest-performing in the state.
Decades later, these disparities still exist and are undergirded by extreme racial and socioeconomic segregation. While East Orange is nearly 90 percent black with a median annual household income of only $40,000, Livingston is more than 75 percent white with a median annual household income of $129,000. These types of statistics are replicated across the state.
Children of color living in urban centers attend vastly different schools than their suburban counterparts who live in whiter and wealthier communities.
I still wonder what opportunities I would have had if I had attended school in an affluent suburb. I succeeded thanks to the values instilled in me during my childhood in Jamaica, strong mentorship, and a lot of luck.
Many of my classmates weren't so lucky. They dropped out of school and, driven by a lack of hope and resources, too many made poor choices presented in their immediate environment and ended up involved on the wrong side of the criminal justice system.
New Jersey's segregated schools are not a political issue. They are a civil rights crisis.
Schools in New Jersey are the sixth most segregated in the nation for African Americans and seventh most segregated for Latinos. Our schools are more segregated than those in the South.
The ability of all children to get a quality education in our public schools is a key part of achieving the American dream. This is part of the dream my parents immigrated to the United States to secure.
New Jersey's students, like my own two children, will compete against children from all over the world. All children, including my own, learn best when they attend diverse schools and can make friends with students from different races, backgrounds, and cultural experiences. It better prepares them for the increasingly multicultural world they will face as adults.
Attacking the problem of school segregation is essential to ensuring every student in our state is equipped to succeed – including children in our urban centers. We should not lose young minds simply because they were raised and educated in Newark, Trenton, East Orange, Jersey City, or Camden.
We've tackled this problem indirectly through enforcement of New Jersey's fair housing laws, known as the Mount Laurel doctrine. During my years as an elected official in Westampton, I have been a forceful advocate for these laws despite fierce opposition.
We now need focused solutions for our segregated classrooms. Gov. Phil Murphy has a historic opportunity to act on this issue.
In May, civil rights groups – including the Latino Action Network and the NAACP – joined with concerned parents to file a landmark lawsuit against the state of New Jersey to integrate our schools.
New Jersey's Constitution was the first in the nation to explicitly prohibit racial segregation in public schools. The N.J. Supreme Court has ruled that even implicit segregation violates students' rights. Mercer County Assignment Judge Mary C. Jacobson has given the governor until the end of August to respond to this lawsuit.
Rather than take an adversarial stance, he should acknowledge the grave constitutional violations occurring in New Jersey's schools and lead the effort to sit down with plaintiffs and work out a plan to begin the process of integrating our schools. This will not only save taxpayers the expense of protracted litigation, it will also allow us to start focusing on solutions.
I was encouraged that the governor issued a statement recognizing the deep segregation in our schools shortly after the lawsuit was filed in May. Now, he needs to breathe life into those progressive words and follow up with concrete actions.
The children of New Jersey have waited long enough. Now is the time for the grown-ups to resolve one of the central civil rights challenges confronting our state.