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Why Affordable Housing Drives School Choice

Adam Rust's picture

Posted February 18, 2010

News out today shows that our schools are more income-segregated than ever before.  This national trend is only a broader reflection of the same forces that have fostered Wake County, North Carolina's recent decision to favor "neighborhood schools." North Carolina is one of the states with the lowest share of elite schools.  By the measure that drove this study, there were less than 3 percent of students on free-or-reduced lunch in only six schools in North Carolina.  Perhaps that is factored by our states ongoing battle to reverse its high share of poor families, but it also reflects well on decision-making that has avoided narrow zoning to separate elites from the rest of the community. The location of affordable housing is driven by land-use planning.  My review of some of the schools where elite private-public schools (PPS) have been created suggests that they are most often in white suburbs with very high incomes. Those districts exist even when a larger MSA is well-off.  Certainly, Boston and San Francisco harbor plenty of wealth.  That is why it is so bad that so many of their schools act as filters of opportunity. The study did not release specific data for any MSA in North Carolina. I'll offer a more narrow example for Alameda County, California. The largest city in Alameda County is Oakland. Oakland is poor and heavily minority. Its schools are well-known for their efforts to deal with the challenges of poverty.  While Oakland struggles, the community of Piedmont has developed its own "private" school system.  Fewer than 3 percent of its young people live in poverty, compared to more than 28 percent in Oakland.  Median household income in Piedmont is $134,000.  In Oakland, it is just a shade over $40,000. Without a systematic effort to shape the housing stock in Piedmont, that outcome could not occur.  Only nine percent of households in Piedmont rent, and most rents are greater than $1,500 per month.  There are only 69 multifamily units in the entire city! Is Wake County near that situation? Certainly there is no Piedmont within its borders.  Yet, it seems all too likely that the County has enough Piedmont-style school zones to bring about some of those same results. I counted 25 census tracts in Wake (in 2000, summary file 3) where less than 3 percent of the residents aged 5 to 17 lived in poverty. In those tracts, there were only 241 school-age children in 2000, compared to more than 10,500 living above the poverty line.  Back in 2000, Wake had about 111,000 school-age students.  Roughly 9.7 percent of them lived in a census tract with fewer than 3 percent of school-age children in poverty. Race is worth mentioning, too: those low-poverty districts have, on average, less than one-third of their share of African-American residents compared to the County as a whole. Granted, school districts are much larger than census tracts.  Still, elementary schools can sometimes draw from a handful of census tracts.  Some of those tracts overlap. The possibility seems very real that Wake would quickly fall into a new regime where there were a handful of elite schools for the very wealthy. Affordable Housing is a Determinant of Income Segregation The Thomas Fordham Institute has published a report entitled America's Private Public Schools that tracks where public decision-making has led to public schools with few or no poor students. Their indictment is compounded by the perspective of its authors.  Fordham is a conservative research group. Their concern is coincidental to the outcries of groups like the NAACP or Wake parents with a compassionate interest in diversity. Their prescription for this problem is more charter schools, rather than reform through traditional public school systems. Fordham concluded that New Jersey was the worst offender for income-segregation. That is interesting, as New Jersey was the site for the seminal affordable housing case.  In Southern Burlington County N.A.A.C.P. v. Mount Laurel Township, the NAACP argued that zoning rules conspired to keep affordable housing outside of the municipal boundaries of Mt. Laurel township, thereby excluding low-and-moderate (LMI) residents from obtaining housing in that community. The decision created a new standard for  implementing the goals of affordable housing. Eight years

later, in Mount Laurel II, a new fair share calculation was reached to put teeth into the original goals of the first ruling.  It created a builder's remedy that allowed new growth to simultaneously correct past imbalances in equity. Importantly, it made the goals of affordable housing a regional concern, rather than that of a specific locality. In effect, areas were required to have adequate affordable housing. The Fordham study (pdf), with its analysis at the MSA level, hints at least indirectly at how poorly those goals have been realized. The easiest way to create a high-wealth school district is to zone out the kinds of housing that would make poor families able to live in a community.  That means not permitting multi-family units, or establishing minimum lot-size requirements, or not pairing public transportation with the location of less costly housing.  If a region allows those kind of policies to take root, then the only alternative is to give students the ability to travel to schools. Wake County's income-based assignments meant that students were able to travel from their home to a school of their choice in another part of the County. The new school board has already reversed that plan. The School Board's policy had been a model that generated national praise from education advocates and researchers. Race and Schools This policy doesn't just mean that wealthy kids get to go to the best schools.  In places where private public schools are already extant, there is a second disparate impact.  The new schools with the most resources are most often attended by white children, and rarely by black students. The next chart shows how many students are studying in the private-publics. In all but a few instances (Phoenix), those students are disproportionately white.

Many cities have effectively conspired to create a private school system with their public school districts. More often than not, those efforts benefit white students at the expense of black students. Wake County may be the next place for this new school segregation.

This is why the NAACP is right to be taking the lead on attempts to reverse what has happened in Wake County. There are a few important questions to ask about these national trends:

  • How do private-public schools develop in the first place, in the context of known best practices and in the face of law?
  • What long-term costs do communities bear when low-income and minority students are systematically treated to second-best schooling?
  • What factors do planning and zoning departments weigh when they allow income-segregated communities to develop in the first place?
  • Does it make sense to target new affordable housing efforts in low-income areas?
  • Does it make sense to rethink the share of new affordable housing (rental and home-ownership) that is set aside only for seniors?
  • Why are schools funded by local property taxes?

Wake seems to want to have many parents that are willing to turn a blind eye to economic justice. Their actions may be driven by a variety of motives.  Undoubtedly, some are independent of any perspective on race or class.  As much as anything, many parents have voiced a desire for more continuity in assignments. They want to know that their children will be in the same schools, and for as many years as possible.  I have to think that anger at the new policies should be borne by more people than just those parents. We have to ask what can be done to change the decisions made by developers and by the leaders who govern land-use planning.