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Jonathan Rothwell

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The Link Between Housing, Education, and Opportunity

Posted: 04/19/2012 12:10 pm

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 communities.

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 compensation schemes.

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 that standard.

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 high-scoring schools.

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.