Urban Wire Why housing policy really is education policy
Megan Gallagher
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How diverse are schools? Not very.

Regardless, the U.S. Department of Education’s recently released draft strategic plan for 2014-2018 is missing strategies for promoting diversity in schools.

A number of school diversity activists and advocates, including Phil Tegeler from the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, have argued that it should have included diversity as a central goal. In a recent Huffington Post blog post, he discusses the benefits of classroom diversity for non-white and white students alike.

In 2007, almost half of all black students went to schools in which black students made up a majority of all students; over half of Hispanic students went to schools in which Hispanics made up majority of all students. Most white students (87 percent) also went to majority white schools.

The schools of black and Hispanic students are more likely to be high-poverty, where more than 75 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced price lunch. In fact, black and Hispanic students were four times more likely than white students to attend a high-poverty school. Founder of the Civil Rights Project Gary Orfield and his colleagues have shown that this double segregation, by race and income, is on the rise in the United States. In fact, a new study recently reported that in 2011, a majority of public school students in 17 states are poor—a marked increase from four states in 2000.

Although per pupil spending in high-poverty schools occasionally meets or exceeds per pupil spending in low-poverty schools, high-poverty schools tend not to benefit from high levels of parent involvement, high quality teachers, low turnover and low absenteeism among teachers and students, and high-quality facilities. In her study of Montgomery County, Maryland, Heather Schwartz found that low-income students who were randomly assigned to attend low-poverty schools scored higher on math and reading exams than those assigned to higher-poverty schools, despite the county’s policy to direct extra resources to higher poverty schools for full-day kindergarten, smaller class sizes, teachers’ professional development, and special instruction for students with special needs.

Schwartz’s study was possible because of the county’s inclusionary zoning laws, which require that real estate developers set aside a proportion of all homes for rent or purchase at below-market prices. In Montgomery County, one-third of those homes are purchased and used as federal subsidized housing. Low-income families who would not otherwise be able to afford to live in Montgomery County can rent these subsidized units and attend local schools.

Inclusionary zoning policies like those studied by Schwartz have potential to increase classroom diversity by placing low-income children in higher-income schools. Other housing and neighborhood policies, including Promise Neighborhoods and Choice Neighborhoods, which are part of President Obama’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, also have the potential to address many of the issues that plague poor schools and even the playing field for young people in poor schools. These policies might even be able to increase diversity by creating or supporting successful learning environments for economically and socially diverse student bodies.

As my colleague Austin Nichols points out, achievement gaps between whites and blacks lead to differences in income, wealth, and health that make it difficult for people of color to obtain educational opportunities that will in turn increase their income and expand their future wealth-building opportunities. We need to close the achievement gap, and we need to pursue a full range of options. 

Research Areas Children and youth
Tags Racial and ethnic disparities K-12 education Children's health and development Racial segregation Schooling Neighborhoods and youth development Racial equity in education Racial inequities in health Racial inequities in neighborhoods and community development
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center