The United States, which prides itself on being a land of opportunity, sends millions of poor
children to low-scoring schools segregated by income, and thereby permanently diminishes their
opportunities to succeed in life.
Much of this economic segregation is not due to chance or even market forces, but is the product
of policy decisions, in particular decisions about where to allow inexpensive housing in our
While there are large and often bitter disagreements on education policy, everyone agrees
that improving the quality of public education is hugely important. Numerous studies -- and
unemployment records -- show that formal education has massive benefits to individuals and
society. Research from scholars like Harvard's Raj Chetty finds exposure to effective teachers
and high-scoring peers can provide major long-term advantages to the academic success and
future earning of poor and minority children.
Yet, we still place obstacles in the path of children that prevents them from attending high-scoring schools. In a new Brookings Institution report that looks at test scores in 84,000 of the
nation's public schools, I found the average low-income student attends a school ranked 19
percentile points behind the average school attended by middle/high-income students on state
standardized exams (on a 100 point scale). In some large metropolitan areas, particularly in the
economically segregated Northeast, the gap reaches as high as 37 percentile points.
Some school reform proposals would expand educational choices for poor families involve
public charters, vouchers, or magnet-style open enrollment schools. Other efforts focus
on raising the quality of failing schools through administrative reforms or new teacher
These may be worthy endeavors, but they ignore a fundamental problem: Children typically
attend schools near their home, as a Department of Transportation study found and local studies
have documented. Even if these relatively untested efforts succeed, schools will still vary greatly
in "peer effects" if they remain segregated, and schools certainly are segregated today.
Only a small fraction of the nation's public schools could be described as truly integrated by
income. Assuming a school is economically integrated if its share of low-income students (those
eligible for free or reduced lunch) falls within five percentage points -- plus or minus -- of the
metropolitan share, only 5 percent of public schools in the 100 largest metropolitan areas meet
The basic reason is that low and moderate income families simply cannot afford to live near
high-scoring schools. In the average large metro area, annual housing costs are $11,000 more
in the hypothetical attendance zone of a high-scoring school compared to a low-scoring school.
Home values are $205,000 more, and much less likely to be available to renters. In New York,
Los Angeles, and Cleveland, housing near high-scoring schools is three times more expensive
than near low-scoring schools. In Bridgeport and Philadelphia, it's three and a half times more
costly. In these metros, families would find it cheaper to send at least two of their children to a
private Catholic school than to move close enough to attend a high-scoring public school.
Yet, in other metros like Salt Lake, Madison, and Honolulu, housing costs are only about 1.5
times higher near high-scoring schools. In metros like Portland and Seattle, the differences are
also relatively modest. Why?
One explanation may surprise readers: land-use regulation or zoning.
The vast majority of our local governments exercise strict regulatory authority over land use,
and one of the most common zoning regulations controls the size and density of housing.
The average jurisdiction with zoning power requires a minimum lot of 0.4, according to my
analysis of the Wharton Land Use Survey. By contrast, the median single-family home sits on
under 0.3 acres. In other words, zoning laws so stringently repel inexpensive housing that in
most jurisdictions, not even normal-sized homes can be built, let alone townhouses, apartment
buildings, and condos. Communities that practice this sort of suburban protectionism are
scattered across the country, such as Wrightstown and Chads Ford in the Philadelphia suburbs;
Ardsley in Westchester County, NY; Oakland in the Detroit suburbs; Fairfield in the Bridgeport
region; Fairport east of Rochester, NY; Pearland outside of Houston; Lakeland near Memphis;
and Solon outside of Cleveland.
Larger lot requirements drive up housing costs within and across jurisdictions. The most
exclusionary jurisdictions have higher-scoring schools and educate much fewer low-income,
black, or Latino students relative to their metropolitan population shares. If one averages the
zoning laws in a metropolitan area -- using survey data from Rolf Pendall and my colleague Rob
Puentes -- the same pattern is observed across metros. Metro areas like Buffalo, Hartford, and
New York City practice the most restrictive kind of zoning and have much more economically
segregated schools than places like Seattle and Portland. The implication is that local
government zoning policies are keeping potentially millions of disadvantaged students out of
Of course, families and non-school factors also have important effects on the likelihood of a
young person succeeding in life. But our policy decisions have a major influence as well. There
is little chance for economic mobility when we compound the disadvantages poor children face
at home with disadvantages in access to education. Reforming discriminatory zoning laws and
taking other steps to promote residential and school integration could have potentially large
benefits to the nation's future by making educational opportunity more equal.
Follow Jonathan Rothwell on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jtrothwell