Opinion
School Choice & Charters Opinion

3 Reasons Education Reformers Should Care About Zoning

By Sara Mead — February 22, 2011 3 min read

Most Americans don’t recognize the extent to which zoning or land use policies impact the shape of our lives today. That goes for education reformers, too. But education reformers should care about zoning laws, for at least 3 reasons:

1. They create barriers to expanding high-quality charter schools: Lack of access to suitable facilities continues to be a major obstacle to expanding high-quality charter schools. Zoning rules, which can limit the locations where charters can operate, play a role in this. Joe Williams wrote a great Ed Next article awhile ago that addressed some of the ways zoning laws are one of a host of state and local policies that can be used to block charter schools. I know of a charter school in D.C. that had to go through a years-long battle over whether or not zoning laws preclude them from opening a school in a space they own (and a neighborhood where there is a desperate need for the services they want to offer!). If you can about expanding the supply of quality charter schools in urban and suburban communities, you should care about zoning.

2. They exacerbate socioeconomic segregation: Current patterns of residential segregation, by both race and income, have produced and educational system that is highly segregated by race and income, too, despite the abolition of de jure racial segregation of schools--and residential patterns create real limits on strategies to increase socio-economic school integration. But it’s important to recognize that current patterns of residential segregation are not a purely natural phenomenon we have no control over; rather they are the deliberate product of 50 years worth of land use, transportation and housing policy decisions. Zoning policies, such as density limits, requirements for homes to have certain features/amenities, and prohibitions on accessory dwellings all conspire to exacerbate segregation by making the types of dwellings low-income families can afford illegal.

3. They limit low-income families’ school choices: The same policies that exacerbate residential segregation also prevent low-income families from choosing better schools through residential choice. It’s become common-place in ed reform circles to bemoan the fact that “in America today the quality of your school is determined by your ZIP code,” or to say that middle class families have school choices based on where they live and poor people don’t. But accepting that poor people have to live in crappy neighborhoods is no less weird or immoral than accepting that their children have to go to crappy schools. Sure, some communities are always going to be more desirable places to live than others, that will be reflected in their housing prices, and there are going to be some places where poor (and even middle class people) can’t afford to live. But housing costs are determined based on a mix of factors: the size and quality of the dwelling itself; local neighborhood features (ie, safety), ammenities (ie, good schools, grocery stores) and nuisances (ie, proximity to dumps or loud noise), and proximity to employment centers, among other things. And zoning policies often have the effect of making it illegal for families to trade-off a smaller/less nice home for an area with better schools or other amenities, by blocking the existence of such homes.

I’m not saying zoning in anywhere near the biggest issue facing education--there are lots and lots of more important issues. But as urbanist reformers seek to raise public awareness of the numerous ways in which existing land use policies hurt economic growth, low-income families, and the environment, it’s worth recognizing the negative educational impacts as well.

This may seem strange coming from someone who’s been critical of large parts of the “fixing schools is too hard, let’s fix poverty first!” agenda--the key distinction here to me is that while most components of the “fix poverty” first agenda involves both massive increases in public investment and government somehow miraculously succeeding at doing really complicated things we’re not at all sure we know how to do well, the land use reform agenda mostly just involves governments stopping doing stupid things that make problems worse. We know it’s possible to do that--but there’s been a tremendous lack of political will to do so.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.