When housing policies fail to break up concentrations of poverty in cities, some education researchers say school districts should take an active role in making sure their schools are economically diverse.
That’s because schools with high concentrations of poverty are statistically more likely to have fewer resources, higher rates of mobility and absenteeism, and less support from parent groups.
“Economically disadvantaged students come to school behind on average,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. “When you separate out family and school effects, there’s also this large penalty associated with attending a high-poverty school.”
To distribute the enrollment of poor students across schools, districts have turned to alternative student-assignment plans, weighted lotteries, and a method known as controlled choice for enrolling students.
Proponents of such economic integration frequently cite research on Montgomery County, Md., a high-achieving district just to the north of Washington that has been praised for its decades-old scattered-site housing plan.
Montgomery County has a median household income of $96,985, according the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, which makes it hard for some families to find affordable housing.
Despite high average income in the region, 34 percent of the 151,000 students in the Montgomery County district qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
Montgomery County’s policy on moderately priced dwelling units, initiated in 1974, requires that between 12.5 percent and 15 percent of the units in residential developments of more than 20 units be set aside for low-income renters and for subsidized public housing.
Heather L. Schwartz, a policy researcher at the Santa Monica, Calif.-based rand Corp., studied seven years of the school system’s achievement data for a 2010 report for the Century Foundation. She found that poor children randomly assigned to public-housing units in low-poverty neighborhoods and, consequently, to more economically advantaged schools, outperformed their peers at schools with greater concentrations of low-income students.
“These results suggest that children from highly disadvantaged circumstances benefit from long-term exposure to advantaged school settings,” the report says.
Poor students in low-poverty schools outperformed their similarly disadvantaged peers in higher-poverty schools, even when the latter schools received more money from the district, Ms. Schwartz found.
At the time of the study, Montgomery County designated its elementary schools with the highest concentrations of poverty as “red zone schools.” Those schools had a maximum class size of 19 in earlier grades, instead of 23, and other resources meant to counteract the effects of poverty.
Today, lower-income schools are designated as “focus schools,” and still have smaller class sizes, said Bruce Crispell, the district’s long-range planning director.
Ms. Schwartz found that by the end of elementary school, the initial gap in test scores between children in public housing who attended the district’s schools with the lowest-concentrations of poverty (where fewer than 20 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price meals) and the more affluent students in the district was cut by half for mathematics and by one-third for reading.
In the study, poor children in schools where fewer than 20 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-priced meals had the greatest academic growth as measured by standardized test scores, but academic improvements dissipated for children in schools with higher poverty rates.
Despite its heralded housing policy, Montgomery County, like much of the Washington metropolitan area, still has drastically varying poverty rates in its neighborhoods and schools. At the high end, 94.3 percent of students in one school qualify for free or reduced-price meals. In a low-end school, 0.9 percent qualify.
Despite several decades of government efforts to improve housing accessibility since the War on Poverty, finding affordable housing is an increasing problem for many families in the United States.
Sources: “America’s Rental Housing: Evolving Markets and Needs” by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University; U.S. Department of Education; U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2011 American Housing Survey
The inclusive housing has affected neighborhoods throughout the county, Mr. Crispell said. But, while it has brought some lower-income students into higher-income neighborhoods, it has not led to an even distribution of income levels districtwide. The district sets economic diversity as one of its priorities when it draws new attendance zones, but it is difficult to create balanced student populations in established wealthy neighborhoods, he said.
“We have to deal with the land-use patterns and the land wealth that exists,” Mr. Crispell said.
Nationwide, neighborhood income patterns have spurred debates between educators who favor targeting resources toward high-need schools and those who favor policies meant to even out the proportion of poor children across schools.
Mr. Kahlenberg is among those who favor the method called controlled choice. Under such a policy, districts assign students to schools through a lottery system in which higher-income families are given priority at schools with high-poverty enrollments, and lower-income families are given priority in low-poverty schools. In some cases, families select preferences from all schools in a district, and, in others, they choose from a cluster of schools near their home.
Because lower-income families are more likely to favor schools close home, districts should target schools with popular programs to those neighborhoods to draw higher-income enrollment, controlled-choice proponents argue.
Such a program is in place in the 6,300-student Cambridge, Mass., district, where the goal is for every school’s enrollment to reflect the district’s overall economic makeup.
Cambridge originally adopted its controlled-choice plan to promote racial integration, but it switched to an income-based assignment method as federal courts began ruling against the broad use of race in student assignment.
Proposal in Washington
Mr. Kahlenberg said larger cities, such as Washington, could use a modified version of controlled choice to promote economic diversity in their schools as young and a fluent people are increasingly attracted to once out-of-favor neighborhoods.
The District of Columbia school system plans to implement new student assignment plans in the 2015-16 academic year. It currently has defined school attendance boundaries, but it allows some transfers to out-of-boundary schools by lottery.
Mr. Kahlenberg co-authored a January editorial in The Washington Post with Michael J. Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based research and advocacy group; and educational consultant Sam Chaltain, arguing that the new plan should bundle some neighborhoods into “controlled-choice zones.” They also proposed weighted lotteries for charter schools to ensure that each school’s share of poor students would not drop below 50 percent.
The plan would prevent schools from “flipping” from one demographic group to another as neighborhoods change, Mr. Kahlenberg said in an interview.
“Low-income families feel as though they’re being pushed out of schools, and middle-class families are wanting to create their own enclaves of students,” he said. But, under a Cambridge-like model, “the gentrification could be a positive for the low-income students.”
But controlled choice has its critics. Among them is Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Fordham Institute. In a recent blog post, he wrote that the idea “smacks of nanny statism,” and that it would unfairly restrict parental choices.
“It restricts families’ education options and imposes a top-down, government-run, social-engineering scheme based on somebody’s view of the value of racial and socioeconomic integration,” Mr. Finn wrote.
Coverage of educational equity and school reform is supported in part by a grant from the HOPE Foundation and the Panasonic Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2014 edition of Education Week as Beyond ZIP Codes: Should Districts Step In When Housing Efforts Fail?