Zoning The Poor Out of Good Schools
By Peter Schrag
Most of us have long known that in places like Oakland and Berkeley, and probably in a lot of other cities as well, the easiest way to predict a school’s test scores is by the altitude of the building.
The higher up the school, the more likely it will be in an affluent neighborhood. The schools in the flats, where the poor people live would almost inevitably have lower scores.
The same, of course, is true for the gaps between a lot of inner cities and the suburbs that were created for the people who wanted to escape from them. Realtors have known it for years and traded on it. I’ve been in suburbs – near Austin, Texas, for example -- where Realtor billboards advertised the official state ratings of the neighborhood school. School test scores have long been at least a rough guide to the real estate market.
Now a major study by Jonathan Rothwell at the Brookings Institution not only confirms those general ideas but provides eye-opening data of the extent to which restrictive zoning and housing prices shut poor and minority kids out of good schools – as indeed they are often intended to do.
In Sacramento, for example, which is roughly average in terms of economic segregation among the 100 large metropolitan areas that Rothwell studied, housing in the neighborhoods served by schools with high test scores – those in the top fifth in the state – costs more than twice what housing costs in areas served by schools in the bottom fifth: $20,200 vs. $9700. In Sacramento the average middle- or high-income student attends a school scoring 21 percentage points higher on state tests than the average low-income student.
In Riverside, the housing served by high-scoring schools on state tests costs 2.3 times as much annually as housing served by low-scoring schools – an average of $21,800 a year as against $9500. In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, housing served by high scoring schools costs 2.8 times as much as housing served by low scoring schools.
The pattern is roughly the same everywhere, although zoning restrictions tend to be higher in the older cities of the northeast than they are elsewhere and test-score gaps are lower in western metropolitan areas.
Nationally, the average low-income student attends a school that scores at the 42nd percentile on state exams; the average student from a middle- or high-income family goes to a school that scores at the 61st percentile. Scores for all the 100 areas in the Brookings study can be found here.
Rothwell points out, not surprisingly, that the school test-score gap “is even wider between black and Latino students and white students.” His report also reconfirms other studies “that low-income students benefit from attending higher-scoring schools.”
There will continue to be endless controversy about cause and effect: To what extent are the huge economic, social and ethnic achievement gaps the result of the disadvantages students bring with them? To what extent are they produced by the inadequate and inequitable resources—in teacher skill and experience, in materials, in expectations – that the system provides in poor neighborhoods?
To what extent can schools overcome the disadvantages children bring with them and to what extent must they be addressed through a spectrum of extra-school services – in health care, in pre-school programs, in summer enrichment programs? There’s research showing that five years of good teachers can significantly reduce the handicaps of poverty. But the schools serving our poorest students rarely have them.
The Brookings study doesn’t try to answer all those questions, but Rothwell’s findings point to an important policy issue that’s rarely, if ever, mentioned in the debates about achievement gaps.
“Eliminating exclusionary zoning in a metro area,” he says “would, by reducing its housing cost gap, lower its school test-score gap by an estimated 4 to 7 percentiles—a significant share of the observed gap between schools serving the average low-income versus middle/higher-income student.” Which is to say that housing policy itself contributes to the inequities in educational opportunities.
“As the nation grapples with the growing gap between rich and poor and an economy increasingly reliant on formal education,” Rothwell says, “public policies should address housing market regulations that prohibit all but the very affluent from enrolling their children in high-scoring public schools in order to promote individual social mobility and broader economic security.”
What that means in particular is changing policies “limiting the development of inexpensive housing in affluent neighborhoods and jurisdictions [that] fuels economic and racial segregation and contributes to significant differences in school performance across the metropolitan landscape.”
But all that’s easier said than done, as anyone whose watched local zoning fights and battles over the location of mixed and low-income housing well knows. As Rothwell’s data shows, most Americans will pay two or three times as much for housing to avoid schools attended by large numbers of poor and minority kids.
More than a half-century ago, the courts declared de-jure segregation unconstitutional. But through a variety of devices – money especially – most of us segregate ourselves, and our schoolchildren especially – as much as we ever did.
Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His newest book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale. View his past work on California Progress Report here.