I know now that this is because of how school zoning practices work in my hometown of Richmond, Va. and elsewhere. Where a child lives determines where that child goes to school, and where that child goes to school determines the quality of education that child will receive. Lower-income families, in an effort to afford basic necessities, often find themselves in environments with higher concentrations of poverty. Typically, low- to moderate- income families are housed in communities close together, and their children end up at the same low performing schools. In short, low-income children are sent to school with other low-income children. And because property values tend to be lower in areas of less affluence, those schools tend to have worse resources and funding due to the fact that property taxes play a large role in school funding.
According to a 2012 report from the Brookings Institute, housing near a high-performing school costs about $11,000 more annually than it does near a low-performing school. These low-performing schools score around the 42nd percentile on state standardized exams compared to moderate- to high-income schools, which perform around the 61st percentile. What’s more is that low-performing schools tend to experience higher rates of overcrowding, another significant factor that impacts the quality of education a child receives. In reality, these circumstances create a vicious cycle of miseducation exacerbated by poverty.
Housing policy that provides lower-income children with access to better performing schools gives them a greater opportunity for success. A housing policy known as inclusionary zoning just may be the key to achieving that. Inclusionary zoning allows low- and moderate-income families to live in middle- and upper-income communities. Real estate developers rent a portion of homes in market-rate communities at below-market prices. This allows for economically diverse, mixed-income developments. Nationally, there are close to 150,000 inclusionary zoning units, with the bulk of them located in California, New Jersey, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Currently, the oldest inclusionary zoning district is in Montgomery County, Md. The district was established in 1974 and has allowed for the development of 13,000 affordable homes throughout the county.
So how can inclusionary zoning impact educational outcomes for children? The county housing authority in Montgomery County, Md. randomly assigns children to public housing, and schools in the area have neighborhood-based attendance zones. This means children in the county’s public housing can easily be assigned to low-performing schools.
Inclusionary zoning allows for children with varying degrees of income go to school together. This zoning helps to limit the effects of the opportunity gap that income disparities create. No one school is given priority over another, and, more importantly, no one child is either.
When lower-income children cannot be zoned to attend high-performing schools outside of their neighborhoods, there is little that can be done to ensure children from all economic backgrounds receive a quality education. Income too often determines where a child lives and thus, where that child will go to school. Understanding and how inclusive communities allow everyone to learn in an environment with an equal playing field can help ensure a quality education for all children in America.
Radiah Shabazz works in marketing and communications at the National Housing Conference. You can reach her via email or Twitter.