School & District Management

Analysis Links Zoning Policies and Disparities

April 24, 2012 7 min read
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Location, location, location.

This mantra of real estate agents and their clients alike is now the target of a new report from the Brookings Institution linking housing prices and zoning practices to effectively depriving low-income students of high-quality schools.

Using test scores from schools in the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the country, senior research analyst Jonathan Rothwell found that housing costs an average of 2.4 times more—close to $11,000 more per year—near a high-scoring public school than near a low-scoring one. High-priced homes are linked to zoning practices because they are typically located in areas that have intentionally been zoned to keep population density low, according to the study released last week.

It shows that the average low-income student attends a school that scores at the 42nd percentile on state exams, while the average middle-/high-income student attends a school that scores at the 61st percentile on state exams.

These test-score gaps between poor and more-affluent students were especially pronounced in the Northeastern part of the country, which claimed six of the top 10 largest gaps among the regions ranked by the report.

The Test-Score Gap

A new report from the Brookings Institution finds that test scores at schools with high concentrations of low-income students are significantly lower than schools in the same areas where most students are from middle- or high-income families.


SOURCE: Brookings Institution

While the idea that economic segregation is a function of zoning practices isn’t new, Mr. Rothwell said his research is among the first to explicitly link the two and tie the results to access to high-quality schools. In this case, quality was determined by state test scores as listed on

“I haven’t seen anything that tries nationally to document the financial barriers that low-income families face to get into high-scoring public schools,” Mr. Rothwell said, noting that charter schools and voucher programs are some of the more popular methods used to help families get around having access only to district-run schools near where they live. “I do think zoning is an underlying problem.”

Deciding where different types of housing will be constructed in a given city can be a highly politically charged process, and there are few drivers for changing existing housing patterns, Mr. Rothwell said.

Modern zoning practices came about in the 1920s, along with the rise of the automobile, making living farther away from urban centers more practical. Suburbs increasingly emerged, created by families who often felt they were losing political power in cities. In their own cities and towns, they could create housing laws and schools in a way that suited them, Mr. Rothwell said.

Reforming these entrenched systems is unlikely to happen without the involvement of the federal government, he said.

“What I would like to see: something like a free market for density and zoning policies that do not discriminate against small homes or multifamily units,” Mr. Rothwell said. In other words, multi- and single-family housing and differently priced homes could be mixed together without restriction.

‘Exclusionary’ Zoning

Research has shown that places with exclusionary residential zoning—policies that discourage or prevent the development of inexpensive housing—would have more low-cost residences available if the rules had been relaxed, said Rolf Pendall, the director of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Washington-based Urban Institute, a public-policy think tank.

“That’s why the people who live there erect these barriers and keep them there. In many cases, they try to keep apartments and low-cost houses out exactly because they want to separate their kids from the children of people who can’t afford expensive housing,” Mr. Pendall said.

Some cities don’t have much of an opportunity to adjust their housing patterns, however, even if they want to.

In Hartford, Conn., which is embedded in an area Mr. Rothwell ranked as having among the highest “test-score gaps” between low-income and higher-income schools, poverty is the norm. The median income is about $24,000 a year, said David Panagore, the city’s chief operating officer.

The city, with about 124,000 residents and 18 square miles of land, can’t impose zoning changes on the wealthier surrounding areas, he said. While Mr. Rothwell’s study may be on point, the city has little ability to send lower-income students to schools outside its boundaries where there are children of greater means. (The study used metropolitan areas as defined by the U.S. Census, which don’t necessarily align with district or city boundaries.)

Connecticut has tried to give districts an incentive to create magnet schools, funding those schools at a higher level than traditional public schools, he said. That is largely the result of a state Supreme Court decision in the mid-1990s that mandated that Connecticut provide students with choices for schools outside their district to alleviate inequities between districts.

Mr. Panagore said the power of city planners and zoning boards may be overstated in Mr. Rothwell’s analysis,

“Planners don’t say, ‘I want to create high-density housing over here.’ They don’t get to do that,” he said.”

Promoting Integration

In some instances, cities are making strides to change long-standing housing patterns, although those opportunities don’t come along very often, said Chris Poynter, a spokesman for the city of Louisville, Ky. The Jefferson County school district, which includes Louisville, has struggled with finding a solution to desegregating schools that is supported by the courts.

“It’s going to take a lot of work over many decades to diversify our housing stock,” Mr. Poynter said. One recently built development, NuLu, involved tearing down barracks-style public housing, which was rebuilt to give access to housing to everyone from single mothers drawing public assistance to medical students to physicians.

Since 2007, in Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, the "[U.S.] Supreme Court said we couldn’t use race as a way for our school system to desegregate, our school’s new formula looks at economic segregation. It tries to have goals for every school—for people from lower incomes and higher incomes,” Mr. Poynter said.

Louisville still has a long way to go, Mr. Poynter said. The 770,000-resident area remains segregated in many ways. But the county ranked in the top third of the Brookings report—meaning about two-thirds of the areas ranked by the report had larger test-score gaps.

But as in the case of Louisville, new developments may only affect a few neighborhoods and schools.

School boards have found some ways to circumvent long-established living patterns, an issue they have struggled with since schools were first required to desegregate in Brown v. Board of Education.

In the Lee County, Fla., school district, listed in Mr. Rothwell’s report as the Cape Coral-Fort Myers area, officials created a system of school choice more than a decade ago to settle a desegregation lawsuit. The 83,000-student district, where about 70 percent of students are poor, had one of the smallest test-score gaps between low- and higher-income students in the Brookings report.

The county is divided into three zones, and parents can choose among the schools in their zone. Each area has specialty programs, including International Baccalaureate and arts schools, district spokesman Joe Donzelli said.

The county, on Florida’s southwestern coast, includes exclusive island-resort towns and low-income inland areas.

“It doesn’t matter what side of the tracks you live on: You have the same chance to go to that school whether you live on the wealthy side of the county or the lower-income side of the county,” Mr. Donzelli said.

Although the district reached unitary status—escaping its federal court-ordered desegregation—years ago, abandoning the choice system isn’t really an option. The district would quickly revert to a pattern of segregated schools, so the extra transportation costs are worth it, according to Mr. Donzelli.

However, while Mr. Rothwell said his study and others are evidence that low-income students benefit from attending high-scoring schools, there is no guarantee that this factor by itself will have an effect on students’ educational achievement, said Reginald Felton, the assistant executive director for congressional relations for the National School Boards Association, in Alexandria, Va.

“Additional support systems from the school as well as the community are necessary to create and sustain ‘positive learning environments,’ ” he said. One solution may be for all schools to have high expectations and high-quality instruction, Mr. Felton added.

Seattle appears to be following that suggestion: The district’s old school-assignment plan was struck down in the same Supreme Court ruling that affected Louisville. The district had a choice model in which students could attend any school in the district, but some said it favored families who had the time and motivation to research the best options for their children. The 48,500-student district has now abandoned the choice plan and is instead focused on improving the quality of every school, spokeswoman Teresa Wippel said.

“We are also looking at what is working at schools where students in the past have struggled,” Ms. Wippel said, “with the goal of replicating that whenever possible.”

Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2012 edition of Education Week as Analysis Links Zoning Policies and Disparities


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