Location, location, location—it matters in real estate, and the harsh reality is, it matters in student achievement, too. While wealthy Americans can pay for private school or move to a top-ranked district in suburbia, countless other parents are left with their neighborhood public school default. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course. But what if the choice is not good enough?
Montgomery County, Maryland, one of the nation’s top 20 wealthiest school districts, has one answer. Federally subsidized homes have been purchased by the government and used to offer safe rental housing for eligible low-income families. This arrangement sometimes referred to as “inclusionary zoning” or “policy-induced integration,” means that families whose incomes fall below the poverty line can relocate to homes in more affluent areas with better schools. A 2010 Century Foundation report by Heather Schwartz finds that students in public housing who were randomly assigned to low-poverty elementary schools outperformed their peers who were assigned to moderate-poverty schools in math and reading.
The Century Foundation report recommends a policy solution to a dilemma many parents face. As Thomas B, Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli lays it out in his new book The Diverse Schools Dilemma, it is essentially the decision that more affluent urban parents must make between sending their children to their neighborhood public school, which is usually a pretty good school, especially in Montgomery County, or seeking a “better” option. The benefits of the former, Petrilli notes, are the stimulation of an urban environment and the diversity of the student body. But it is precisely because of that diversity, he says, that even the best urban schools often have high percentages of low-income students who are more likely to need specially tailored curricula. Petrilli decided to move his family from the ethnically and demographically diverse Takoma Park, Md. to Bethesda, Md., where his children now attend a school where just 1 percent of the students are low-income, 2 percent are black and 5 percent are Hispanic. Petrilli’s ability to relocate his family for the sake of education is a luxury not all Americans can afford. But, his move suggests a policy solution that high performing districts may benefit from.
While the Schwartz study has many interesting findings about housing policy and school policy, it is important to note the finding that “the academic returns from economic integration diminished as school poverty levels rose.” Petrilli’s experience and Schwartz’s study both point to the need for inclusionary zoning and housing policy to be incorporated into discussions about education access and equity.
To prepare our children to live, work, and play in a multicultural, multiracial world, exposure to diverse groups of people is crucial in their young years. Urban schools with more low-income and mostly minority students typically do not perform as well as suburban schools with less diversity in race and in income. As long as location continues to drive educational choices, policy makers need to think creatively in order to design culturally diverse neighborhoods with high performing schools.
Photo Credit: Bill Remmington