Urban Wire High-poverty schools undermine education for children of color
Reed Jordan
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Throughout this week, Urban Institute scholars offer evidence-based ideas for policies that can make a difference for communities in Baltimore and beyond grappling with inequality and injustice.  Although this series covers a lot of issues, we by no means address all the challenges that matter.


This post draws heavily from my recent full-length feature on income and race in public schools.

Decades of public policy and private action have systematically excluded people of color—especially black people—from good neighborhoods, jobs, and wealth-building opportunities. Among the many consequences for children of color is that they disproportionately attend high-poverty public schools (schools where more than 75 percent of students come from low-income families).  

Nationally, about 30 percent of white students attend low-poverty schools, while only 8 percent attend high-poverty schools. In other words, white students are about four times more likely to attend low-poverty schools than high-poverty schools.

The pattern is flipped for black students, for whom attending high-poverty schools is commonplace. Over 45 percent of black students (about 3.4 million) attend high-poverty schools, and only about 7 percent attend low-poverty schools. 

Separate and unequal

In some metropolitan areas, the racial concentration of school poverty is so severe that black and white students effectively attend two different school systems: one for middle- and upper-middle-income white students, and the other for poor students and students of color.

This is certainly true in Chicago (Cook County), where 75 percent of black students attend high-poverty schools compared with less than 10 percent of white students. The same dual system exists for the 75 percent of black students (40,000) in Milwaukee who attend high-poverty schools compared with 10 percent of their white peers. In fact, racial inequity is a defining feature of almost all midwestern and northeastern metropolitan school systems.

Why should we care? Because high-poverty schools tend to lack the educational resources—like highly qualified and experienced teachers, low student-teacher ratios, college prerequisite and advanced placement courses, and extracurricular activities—available in low-poverty schools.

These inequitable educational offerings are compounded by the toll of poverty itself on the physical and psychological development of children. As a result, high-poverty schools are tasked with a tremendous load and are often unable to provide either the quality of education or the additional resources and supports needed to help students in low-income families succeed. This is concentrated disadvantage: the children who need the most are concentrated in schools least likely to have the resources to meet those needs.

Housing is a part of the solution

Housing programs can help alleviate the concentration of minority poverty in schools. For example, Montgomery County, Maryland’s innovative and decades-long inclusionary zoning policy requires large-scale housing developers to set aside 12 to 15 percent of homes for affordable housing. As a result, affordable housing is scattered throughout the affluent county. Students in low-income families living in these affordable units benefit from both living in low-poverty neighborhoods and attending low-poverty schools. Over time, these children have performed better academically.

Region-wide school policymakers can also make a difference—for example, by redrawing school district boundaries (which often reinforce inequality) to cross suburban and city lines or encourage resource-rich suburban schools to accept low-income transfers.

One such program is the Minneapolis metropolitan region’s decade-long “The Choice is Yours” initiative, which allowed students from low-income families enrolled in the city's schools to transfer to a nearby suburban school district. Through enhanced state funding that followed the transfer student, low-poverty suburban schools were motivated to participate in the program. Though the program is now inactive, participating students made significant and sustained academic improvements.

One of the country’s most successful and ongoing school desegregation initiatives in Louisville, Kentucky shows that thoughtfully designed and implemented metropolitan-wide school desegregation continues to serve as a highly effective tool to create racially and socioeconomically diverse schools, improve outcomes for children in low-income families, and stabilize local housing markets and regional tax bases.

After the Supreme Court struck down Louisville’s voluntary desegregation program in 2006, the school system—backed by support and buy-in from white and black families—revised the program in an effort to maintain diverse schools.

Moving forward

Growing poverty in schools has profound implications for students and families of color who have already been harmed the most by a legacy discriminatory policy. Our school system alone can’t solve these problems. We have the policy tools—in both housing and schools—backed by solid research to address concentrated poverty and racial segregation.

Illustration by Adrienne Hapanowicz, Urban Institute


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Education Race and equity Children and youth
Tags Racial and ethnic disparities Social determinants of health Kids in context Racial equity in education Racial inequities in health Structural racism
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center