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Still separate, still unequal: How exclusionary zoning sustains inequity in education – Georgetown Public Policy Review – Georgetown Public Policy Review

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Exclusionary zoning, a practice historically used to racially segregate communities, plagues issues across the political landscape, from climate change to education. This article is the second in a series on how exclusionary zoning perpetuates a discriminatory housing system that threatens our aging population, education system, and climate.

What is exclusionary zoning?

At its most basic definition, exclusionary zoning is a policy that sets land use requirements, such as barring apartment buildings in a residential area or setting minimum lot sizes. In practice, they keep certain residents (i.e. low-income residents and residents of color) from living in certain communities (i.e. wealthy and middle-class white communities) and keep property values for homeowners high.

What does housing have to do with schools?

Three basic statistics bind housing and education together:

First, segregation within cities has not improved since the 1980s and segregation between cities is on the rise.

Second, the strongest predictor of education outcomes next to a child’s socioeconomic status (SES) is the overall SES of the school the child attends.

Third, local governments cover 45 percent of public school funding nationwide, 80 percent of which comes from local property taxes.

Segregation, SES effects, and property tax dependence are powerful drivers of racial inequity in K-12 education today, perpetuating the same racist system of exclusion which civil rights activists have been fighting to dismantle for generations. The racial achievement gap remains persistent despite shaky progress: for instance, about half of white fourth graders have proficient math scores compared to just 17 percent of black fourth graders. A 2017 report found a 30-point gap in reading scores between black and white high school seniors, and a 20-point gap between Hispanic and white seniors. After controlling for the effects of SES, the gap shrinks, but only slightly depending on the demographic makeup of the school.

A comprehensive equity approach would also include tackling problems internal to individual schools, such as diversity in teaching staff, the student-to-counselor ratio, and discipline practices which disproportionately punish students of color. At the core of equity disparities among schools, though, is exclusionary zoning. By carving out exclusive neighborhoods of single-family homes and geographically clustering renters and low-value properties, governments are overfeeding rich schools and starving poor schools.

National Public Radio’s in-depth study of education financing provides a striking example. Most of the families served by the Chicago Ridge School District are low-income and about a third are non-native English speakers. The nearby Roundout District 72 offers individualized learning plans and an average teacher salary of more than $90,000.

What’s the difference between these districts? Chicago Ridge residents are mostly renters and the median property value is just $156,400. In neighboring Rondout District 72, the median home value is over quadruple that amount. Wealth built by high-value homes also allows residents to invest in private tutors, extracurriculars, and other advantages which the families of poorer districts cannot afford. Segregation by SES and race are the result of more than just exclusionary zoning, but the lack of integrated, mixed-SES school districts across the country is directly correlated with the lack of diverse housing options and low educational achievement.

How would ending exclusionary zoning improve equity in education?

What makes these issues intractable is their intimacy. Housing and education are among the most hyper-localized issues in American politics — where you live and which schools your kids attend are so close to your immediate, material, day-to-day existence it is difficult to see them from a systems-level vantage. For example, the dissonance between stated preferences for racial equality and implicit racial biases can often be seen when families choose to send their kids to private schools when they live in a district of majority-minority public schools.

The fear of sending a child to a majority-minority public school is driven by the idea that such schools perform poorly. This ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy; often, poorly performing schools struggle to raise achievement levels because they do not have access to  the same level of investments that majority-white schools accrue.

The research shows integrated, mixed-SES schools do not drag down high-achieving kids. Instead, they lift the lowest performers in a way that makes integrating school districts one of the most proven, effective education strategies. In addition, students of all backgrounds gain a range of academic, cognitive, and economic benefits from an integrated education, including being more likely to attend college, having greater intellectual confidence, and being less likely to drop out.

How do you create integrated, mixed-SES school districts? While the partitioning of district boundaries is separate from municipal zoning regulations, cities can increase the number of integrated districts by diversifying housing stock across all neighborhoods instead of locking certain communities into one type of housing. Without affordable housing options alongside single-family homes, it will be difficult to draw the integrated, mixed-SES districts which close the racial achievement gap.

States are already redistributing resources to poor schools with varying degrees of commitment, but disparities remain stubborn because state dollars don’t address the underlying SES effects of individual districts. Because of this, raw levels of spending are not necessarily helpful metrics in and of themselves. Spending per pupil is generally correlated with higher achievement, a phenomenon often used to justify equalizing education spending across schools. Of course, a baseline level of spending that provides high teacher pay, longer school years, extracurriculars, and quality classrooms and materials is crucial to student development, but structural changes at the neighborhood level are necessary for long-term progress.

Even from a cost-effectiveness perspective, mixed-SES integration may be the best investment local governments can make. High poverty schools are plagued by higher teacher burnout while schools with lower levels of socioeconomic segregation have higher high school graduation rates. A transportation-based integration policy such as busing may be more affordable and feasible in the short-term, though it neglects the powerful family wealth-building advantages which account for so much of educational success.

Education spending should be targeted in a way that recognizes how housing policies have reinforced racial discrimination and inequity. Sinking money into ineffective, calcified systems of exclusion is not likely to bear much fruit. Eliminating exclusionary zoning will cause disruptive changes but it’s one of the best, under-discussed policy levers in the education world.

What about backlash to disruptive changes?

Aesthetic preferences for single-family neighborhoods can’t be saved. However, panic that housing diversity will crater home values is largely overstated. A comprehensive study of the country’s least affordable housing markets found low-income housing construction increased affordability while having no impact on surrounding property values. Upzoning in certain areas of Chicago actually saw increases in property values, a potential threat to affordability for communities too slow to build new housing units post-upzoning. Some residents may choose to leave newly-integrated neighborhoods given past reactions to integration efforts, yet when housing markets are growing and local amenities remain strong, white flight is kept to a minimum.

Ultimately, the country must reckon with its lasting history of segregation in housing and education. The failure to provide a high-quality, equitable education to all has consequences which endure for generations.

The final part of this series will explore the effects of exclusionary zoning on climate change.

Photo by Michael Ragsdale.