It’s a truism that families vote for better schools with their feet, but new research suggests that the most vulnerable and highly mobile families are also those least likely to be able to make educational opportunity a priority when deciding on housing.
Families in the four largest federal programs to subsidize housing for those in poverty do not end up with better access to high-quality schools than other low-income parents, particularly if they are black or Hispanic. That’s the conclusion of the latest. in a series of studies on the intersection of federal housing and education policies by the Washington-based Poverty and Race Research Action Council.
Federal housing programs are not designed to improve students’ academic outcomes directly, though some, like housing vouchers, are designed in part to give parents a way to move children to better schools and neighborhoods. However, officials do recognize the connection between housing and educational decisions for families. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development this year started requiring better coordination between school districts and local housing authorities as a condition for its $1.61 billion competitive Continuum of Care program.
The study released last month by the independent research and advocacy group echoes what many who work with homeless and highly mobile families see on the ground: Giving families financial support for new homes isn’t enough. Rather, the researchers and practitioners say, these families need more support to find homes with access to good schools, and more guidance to enroll their children in the most appropriate school regardless of where they live.
Authors Ingrid Gould Ellen, a public-policy and urban-planning professor at New York University, and Keren Mertens Horn, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Boston, looked at families with children across the country who are using the four most common forms of housing assistance, including approximately:
• 360,000 families who live in free- or reduced-rent public housing built and run by local governments;
• 400,000 who live in privately owned homes subsidized by the Project-based Section 8 program;
• 900,000 families living in housing rented below the market rate because the building developers receive low-income-housing tax credits; and,
• 1.2 million families, including 2.5 million children, who use housing-choice vouchers intended in part to help poor parents move their children to a community—and school—of their choice, by subsidizing payments for families renting privately owned apartments in higher-priced areas.
The researchers rated the quality of schools nearest to each family’s home based on state rankings, as measured by students’ scores on state mathematics and language arts tests, and documented the percentages of poor and minority students attending those schools.
Nationwide, the average “proficiency percentile ranking” in math and literacy for schools serving all households in the study was 53, the researchers found. But the rankings were much lower for families using housing assistance: 19 out of 100 for those in public housing; 26 for those using housing-choice vouchers; and 28 for those in Section 8 housing. Only housing tax credits, which were considered a housing program for the purposes of the study, brought families to a school deemed slightly above average for all poor families, a state ranking of 31 versus 30 for schools attended by other poor students.
All the federal housing programs tend to place children in housing with access to lower-performing schools and schools with much higher poverty, said Philip Tegeler, the research action council’s executive director. Only a quarter of eligible families receive housing assistance, he noted, and, “for those families lucky enough to get this assistance, we should be doing a better job of connecting these children to better life opportunities in the form of higher-performing schools.”
While schools near all households in the study had, on average, just under 46 percent of students receiving federally subsidized free or reduced-price lunches, families receiving federal housing assistance ended up in far more concentrated poverty. The poverty rates at the schools children from those families could attend after moving into the subsidized housing ranged from 67 percent to 82 percent, depending on the housing program.
“To my mind, the study is highly significant,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation based in New York City and Washington. He noted that it confirms prior research that found families using housing vouchers often ended up moving within close range of their old neighborhoods or “moving to a different neighborhood, but even though they physically moved, they kept their kids in the old school.”
One program that attempts to bolster the connection between schooling and public-housing assistance is the Next Step housing-voucher program in Grand Junction, Colo. Its two-year, renewable vouchers, which can be used to pay rent in privately owned apartments, are dependent on the family meeting educational criteria, such as mandatory student attendance and parent participation in education classes.
In 2012, the sixth year of the program, 30 families are using the vouchers, and the 21,000-student Mesa County School District 51, which includes Grand Junction, has seen better attendance for the children from those families, according to Catherine Haller, the prevention-services coordinator of the district’s Resources, Education, and Advocacy for Children Who Are Homeless. The reach program co-sponsors Next Step with the Grand Junction Housing Authority and other local agencies and nonprofit groups.
Part of the problem with traditional housing-support programs, Mr. Kahlenberg suggested, is that parents and children alike may feel out of place in a new school. “You can imagine this is not an easy thing for a low-income family to feel welcome and a part of more-affluent communities,” he said.
Grand Junction’s Next Step program includes tutoring for all children through AmeriCorps volunteers in their new schools. Each family also meets with a case manager to discuss problems related to settling in school or the community.
However, it’s not clear whether families aren’t comfortable moving away or simply don’t have the information and access to do so, Ms. Ellen said.
Housing-authority agents often provide lists of landlords known to accept tenants receiving assistance, she said, but those can end up restricting families’ search to lower-income neighborhoods.
In Grand Junction, Ms. Haller admits that options are often limited—even for families using the Next Step vouchers. Historically, the city has had a vacancy rate of less than 3 percent.
“Families are taking whatever they can get,” Ms. Haller said, noting that nearly half the district’s students live at or below the federal poverty rate. “It’s not going to be about making educational decisions before [families] move.”
She added, “After they are settled, we look at where are their needs best met.”
Most education and housing officials go through a similar balancing act with families, according to Diana Bowman, the director of the National Center for Homeless Education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, part of the federal No Child Left Behind law, encourages districts to keep homeless and highly mobile students in their original schools as often as possible, even if a school in another area might be considered academically superior.
“It’s not so much the conversation centering on can you send your child to a better school, but can we make your schooling more stable for your child,” Ms. Bowman said.
“It’s a tough call because we know sometimes the loss of stability is more than the educational disruption but also the loss of the peer group and the loss of adults who know the child,” she said.
Some local housing programs, such as one in Montgomery County, Md., have had greater success improving students’ access to high-quality schools by requiring all housing developments of 50 units or more to dedicate 15 percent of those units to affordable housing.
A 2010 study conducted by Heather L. Schwartz, a policy researcher at the Santa Monica, Calif.-based research group rand Corp., and published by the Century Foundation, tracked 850 children randomly assigned to these homes in Montgomery County, one of the wealthiest school districts in the country.
That study that found poor students who lived in and attended schools in higher-wealth neighborhoods performed higher in both mathematics and reading on standardized tests than similar students, also in subsidized housing, who attended schools with 20 percent or more disadvantaged students. Still, this sort of integrated housing does not produce enough homes for all families on housing assistance in most areas.
Mr. Kahlenberg argued that districts can take the lead in integrating housing by opening their enrollment to districtwide, as opposed to zoned, student-assignment policies.
“Many middle-class families chose to locate to an area based on the promise that their kids could go to high-quality, middle-class schools,” Mr. Kahlenberg said. “Once you break the automatic tie between a residential area and a particular school, people are more willing to live in integrated neighborhoods. In school districts that have public school choice options, housing tends to be less segregated"—an assertion echoed by some studies.
A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2012 edition of Education Week as Study Finds Housing Aid No Path to Better Education