Image by Anthony licensed under Creative Commons.

It’s a pattern so common we take it for granted: Good schools and expensive neighborhoods go together. If you want to send your child to a good public school, you’ll need to “buy into the school district.” But it’s not like this is a law of nature. It’s a byproduct of zoning laws we choose to put in place even though they systematically and needlessly harm low-income students.

It works like this: wealthy neighborhoods around the US ban rentals, multifamily housing, and smaller homes through regulations like zoning. This excludes lower-income families by outlawing housing they could afford.

Because school attendance zones tend to follow neighborhood boundaries, exclusive neighborhoods have spawned increasingly economically segregated schools.  And separate is not equal: because almost half of school funding derives from local sources, poor students are left with less funding relative to student need and less experienced teachers.   

Image by Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

There's recent evidence of a link between land-use laws and school segregation

In a 2012 paper, Jonathan Rothwell, now a senior economist at Gallup, found that metro areas with the most exclusionary zoning had the largest test score gaps between low-income students and their better-off peers. He matched 84,077 schools to families’ demographic data with information on zoning stringency from four sources: the Pendall Survey, the Wharton land-use index, an index of zoning in Eastern Massachusetts, and a national index of regulation based on the number of local law firms that specialize in zoning.

The average low-income student lives near a school that scores at the 42nd percentile on state exams, while the average middle-to-high-income student lives near a school scores almost 20 percentage points higher.

Part of the reason: housing costs are almost two-and-a-half times higher near high-scoring schools. Home values are $205,000 higher in the better-scoring areas, the typical home has 1.5 more rooms, and the share of rentals is 30 percentage points lower.

He calls the discrepancy between the cost of living in neighborhoods in the top and bottom fifth of schools within each metro area the “housing cost gap.”

But this link between expensive neighborhoods and high-performing schools is weaker in the metro areas with the least restrictive zoning. In those places, housing cost gaps are 40 to 63 percentage points lower than in areas with the most restrictive zoning— and they have smaller test score gaps between poor and better-off students.

Rothwell estimates that “eliminating exclusionary zoning in a metro area would, by reducing its housing cost gap, lower its school test-score gap by an estimated 4 to 7 percentiles—a significant share of the observed gap between schools serving the average low-income versus middle/higher-income student.”

Letting low-income parents live in wealthier neighborhoods helps their children

Other studies have suggested how much low-income students might benefit from living in more well-off neighborhoods.

RAND researcher Heather Schwartz analyzed data on roughly 850 students living in public housing in Montgomery County. Because the county housing authority allocates units using a lottery, some students were randomly assigned to live near schools with fewer poor students.

By the end of elementary school, publicly-housed children who attended lower-poverty schools made up half of their initial disadvantage in math and one-third in reading. For publicly-housed students in moderately-poor schools, the achievement gap remained wide.

Similarly, Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence Katz recently analyzed data on the Moving to Opportunity program, which required some low-income families with Housing Choice Vouchers to move to more well-off neighborhoods. Young children randomly assigned to the “experimental voucher” group were 16% percent more likely to attend college relative to the control group. They also tended to attend better colleges. And those children were more likely to live in lower-poverty neighborhoods as adults, less likely to be single parents, and enjoyed 31% higher annual earnings.

Other studies of racial integration have found that white, often wealthier students didn’t suffer at all for having peers of color. In fact they benefit: white students in integrated schools, for example, feel more comfortable working with peers from different backgrounds. In a 2007 case concerning Louisville’s integration policy, 553 social scientists submitted a brief summarizing the evidence that children learn better in racially and economically diverse schools. Indeed, in Louisville, parents are generally happy with their district’s emphasis on economically integrated schools.

The tragedy here is that many parents, never having experienced integrated schools, now seek to keep their children from them. For example we ended bussing, which was originally intended as a temporary measure to integrate students until residential segregation was undone. But, of course, both racial and economic segregation persist– and zoning is one tool that the powerful use to keep things the same.

Pete Rodrigue is a social policy researcher at a think tank in DC, though all opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He grew up in Arlington, lives in North Michigan Park, and saves money on groceries with his rudimentary knowledge of edible weeds.