This was written by Richard D. Kahlenberg, senior fellow at The Century Foundation. It first appeared on the foundation’s website.

By Richard D. Kahlenberg

Americans value equal educational opportunity, but our system has always undercut that goal with housing, zoning, and school assignment policies that consign low-income students to high-poverty schools where they tend to perform worse.  A fascinating new study by Jonathan Rothwell of the Brookings Institution outlines how zoning policies that limit opportunities for inexpensive housing in more affluent neighborhoods, and school policies that mandatorily assign students to schools largely based on what sort of neighborhoods their parents can afford to live in, conspire to reduce educational opportunity for low-income students.

The report, “Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools,”analyzes test scores for 84,077 schools nationally in 2010 and 2011 and also focuses on the link between housing prices and school test scores in the 100 largest metropolitan areas.  The author finds that housing near high-scoring schools is on average 2.4 times as expensive, or almost $11,000 a year more costly, than housing in neighborhoods near low-scoring schools – effectively condemning many low-income students to lower-scoring schools.

In places like Raleigh, North Carolina, however, Rothwell finds that the test score gap between schools attended by low-income and middle/high-income students is much lower than would be predicted by demographic factors.  Raleigh, he notes, is located within the Wake County, North Carolina school district, which has had a long-standing effort to integrate schools by socioeconomic status.

Some might argue, of course, that it is unsurprising that students in more affluent schools score higher, given the greater likelihood of strong home environments which are linked to higher achievement.  The real question is: do low-income students who are given a chance to attend middle-class schools doing better?

Here, the Brookings Institution study analyzes data from 51,613 schools in 35 states and the District of Columbia and concludes that “low-income students in higher-scoring schools perform better on exams than their peers elsewhere.”  This finding comports with a wide body of research indicating that low-income students perform better in middle-class (and higher-achieving) schools than in high-poverty (and lower-achieving) schools.

Conceivably, some of the superior test score performance may have to do with self-selection: that low-income children in middle-class schools are more likely to have highly-motivated parents than low-income children in high-poverty schools. 

But as Rothwell notes, a 2010 Century Foundation study conducted by Heather Schwartz of the RAND corporation, finds when families were assigned by random lottery to low-income housing units throughout Montgomery County, Maryland, those low-income students given the chance to live in lower-poverty neighborhoods and to attend lower-poverty schools, performed significantly better than low-income students who whose families were assigned to higher-poverty neighborhoods and attended higher-poverty schools.

The public policy implications of the Brookings report are important.  While there has been something like bipartisan consensus in favor of expanding non-union charter schools and turning around failing school by firing teachers, this new research suggests efforts should be made to promote inclusionary zoning policies of the type used in Montgomery County.

  Likewise, as The Century Foundation’s recent book, “The Future of School Integration, ” notes, there are about 80 school districts nationally, educating some 4 million students, that now use socioeconomic status as a factor in student assignment policies to break up concentrations of school poverty.  New research in the book indicates that far more socioeconomic integration is logistically possible than occurs today, and that smart implementation can make these programs be politically sustainable as well.

The communities pursuing inclusionary housing policies and socioeconomic school integration programs are demonstrating that we don’t have to accept rising economic segregation as inevitable.  Such segregation – as the Brookings report freshly demonstrates – has a negative impact on the achievement of low-income students.  But there is another way.


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