Last week I gave a talk at a friend’s 12th grade stats class in Washington, DC about why people choose to live in certain places and how that decision influences them and the settings where they interact. I started by asking the students to rank the importance of various neighborhood attributes – access to jobs, proximity to their extended family and friends, a high quality school, open recreation space, reliable public transit, and safety. While they acknowledged that these are all important aspects of a vibrant, sustainable community, they overwhelmingly gave priority to one factor: schools.
They are not alone. In June’s Atlantic Monthly, former NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein outlines the many reasons why, despite doubling K-12 education spending over the past three decades, achievement gains have been disappointing. One point Klein makes is too often underemphasized in the broader conversation on education reform:
A full-scale transition from a government-run monopoly to a competitive marketplace won’t happen quickly. But that is no reason not to begin introducing more competition. Many middle-class families have plenty of choice (even beyond private schools): they can move to another neighborhood, or are well-connected enough to navigate the system. Those families who are least powerful, however, usually get one choice: their neighborhood school. That has to change.
If Klein is right, the all-important question now is which policies will most help children whose futures are jeopardized by the double whammy of poor neighborhoods and failing schools?
Klein advocates increasing educational choice by establishing more charter schools in low-income neighborhoods. Other strategies, like the Obama administration’s Promise Neighborhoods initiative, seek to make schools the center of a broader neighborhood revitalization. Both approaches justifiably channel more and better resources to underperforming schools that desperately need them, but their relatively limited reach will be hard pressed to tackle the neediest communities.
A third approach favors economically integrating schools by providing housing subsidies so low-income families can live in higher-income neighborhoods with better schools. Heather Schwartz’s evaluation of Montgomery County, Maryland’s inclusionary zoning housing program suggests that this third way can be a gateway to higher academic achievement. She found that children living in public housing that attended low-poverty schools performed better when compared to similar children that attended moderate-poverty schools, even though those moderate-poverty schools received larger increases in funding and resources.
Schwartz’s conclusion: housing policy is school policy, and vice versa. And now the What Works Collaborative has released new research from the UC-Berkeley Center for Cities and Schools that documents promising practices and spells out seven steps to link education and housing policy locally. A 2009 paper by Marge Turner and Alan Berube provided similar suggestions for federal policy.
While these research findings struck the DC students I spoke with as common sense, geographic inequalities and artificial administrative boundaries have historically stood in the way of linking education and housing policy agendas, to the detriment of both.