Class-Action Suit in New Jersey Filed Over Education

Published September 1, 2006

On July 13, the parents of 12 children attending low-performing public schools in New Jersey filed a class-action lawsuit against several school districts statewide and the state education commissioner.

In filing Crawford v. Davy, the parents hope to get their children out of failing schools and into the schools of their choice, with the students’ state funding allocation following them to their chosen school. The lawsuit asks the judges to eliminate district-based residential school assignments that prevent families from sending their children to better-performing public schools. The case also asks for a portion of the state funding to follow the student to the public or private school the family chooses.

“The lives of far too many children are at stake here,” Van-Ness Crawford, the lead plaintiff, said in a July 13 statement. “I have four children. In each one of them, I see hope for my community, for this state, and for this country.”

Joining Forces

Crawford’s children attend Malcolm X. Shabazz High School in Newark, where less than 20 percent of the students tested proficient or better in math on 2005 state assessment tests.

The class-action lawsuit, however, represents 60,000 students in 96 schools in 25 school districts. Students who attend schools in which 50 percent of all students failed the state assessment tests the previous year, or in which 75 percent failed at least one section of the tests, are automatically included in the class.

A strong partnership between national and state-level school reform activists has already formed in support of the lawsuit. Several national groups–including the Black Ministers’ Council, Latino Leadership Alliance, and Alliance for School Choice–have joined forces with a state group, Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), to support the plaintiffs. Meanwhile, school districts and the lead defendant, Lucille Davy–New Jersey’s recently appointed Commissioner of Education–are mum regarding the case.

Disagreeing over Intent

The state teachers’ union, however, had plenty to say about the matter.

“This is a national movement whose agenda is not to improve the circumstances of people of color,” Steve Wollmer, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, told The Record newspaper on July 24. “It’s a movement that is using them as props in an effort to divert public money into private institutions.”

E3 spokeswoman Frances Edwards said children’s education is paramount–not public image.

“They are saying this is a ‘PR stunt’ and that it will take money away from school districts,” Edwards said. “We believe parents know what is best for their children. That seems to work for everyone else in the United States, but [the defendants] discredit the poor. That saddens me.”

Testing the Waters

The Alliance for School Choice–a national advocacy group based in Phoenix, which has a lawsuit pending against the Los Angeles Unified and Compton school districts in California–calls New Jersey a “test case.”

“The New Jersey lawsuit has national significance because many state constitutions have similar provisions,” Alliance President Clint Bolick explained. “The remedy we seek is designed to [ensure] an equal educational opportunity not 10 years from now, but today.”

New Jersey’s state constitution promises “thorough and efficient” education for every student. State per-pupil funding is hovering around $10,000 and in some districts is much higher. According to the Alliance for School Choice, the Englewood, New Jersey City Board of Education is spending $19,194 per student. Yet 64 percent of the eighth-graders at Janis D. Dismus Middle School in Englewood scored below the proficiency mark in math in 2005, while 50 percent were less than proficient in language arts.

Changing the System

The case could change the New Jersey education system forever … and not by increasing funding for the existing system.

“There are essentially two systems in New Jersey,” Edwards explained, “one for affluent white students and another for poor minority students. They are not equal; they are not the same system. That must change. We must start producing successful children.”

At press time, the defendants were filing their response to the suit. No trial date had been set.

Aaron Atwood ([email protected]) is a client services manager with The Elevation Group, a consulting company in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

For more information …

“L.A. Parents Sue for NCLB Choice Options,” by Karla Dial, School Reform News, June 2006,