Report: Zoning Laws Could Hinder Low-Income Student Achievement

Local zoning laws could be limiting access to a quality education for low-income children, according to a new report by the Brookings Institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program.
by | April 19, 2012
 

Local zoning laws could be limiting access to a quality education for low-income children, according to a new report by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

Researchers found that housing near high-scoring schools costs on average 2.4 percent more (or $10,707 annually) than housing near low-scoring schools. Median home values are $205,000 greater on average near better schools.

More restrictive zoning laws are associated with a greater gap in housing costs across a metropolitan area (between 40 and 63 percent), according to the Brookings analysis. A greater housing-cost gap is linked to a bigger difference in state exam scores between schools in more expensive neighborhoods and those in less expensive areas. Metropolitan areas with a greater housing-cost gap had, on average, test score disparity that was 12.7 percent larger than those with a smaller housing-cost gap.

“Land use policy is education policy,” Jonathan Rothwell, one of the report’s authors and an associate fellow at Brookings, said in a release accompanying the report. “We have found that land use decisions are creating large gaps in educational opportunity. People don’t usually think of local zoning laws in this way, but they have a tremendous effect on what kind of education children receive.”

The Brookings analysis is based on data from a variety of sources (such as the U.S. Census Bureau, the National Center for Education Statistics and state zoning law databases), covering the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas.

An example of restrictive zoning: 84 percent of jurisdictions dictate a minimum lot size (an average of 0.4 acres), according to the report, even though the median lot size nationwide for single-family homes is 0.29 acres. Bigger lots are more expensive.

The authors narrowed their focus to Boston and its surrounding suburbs to illustrate their point. After ranking jurisdictions based on how restrictive their zoning laws were, researchers found that eastern Massachusetts schools in the most restrictive areas (which in turn had higher average home values) ranked in the 66th percentile for state exam scores, while the schools in the least restrictive areas (which had lower average home values) placed in the 25th percentile.

The student populations also reflected the trend: 9 percent of students in the most restrictive jurisdictions were low-income students, compared to 61 percent in the least restrictive.

“A good education is essential to a child’s economic future, and where you can afford to live has a lot to do with whether your child gets that education,” Rothwell said. “In most metro areas, the only way to attend high-scoring schools is to live in an expensive neighborhood. This makes it very difficult for children born at the bottom to rise to the top.”

Brookings also cited evidence that low-income students perform better when attending high-performing schools if given the opportunity. The authors acknowledged that it is impossible to determine the reason for that correlation, but noted its existence.

The link between household income and student achievement is well documented. According to the report, students from middle-income and high-income families attend better-performing schools (ranked on average in the 61st percentile for state exam scores) than their low-income peers (whose schools average in the 42nd percentile).

To address the issue, the authors offered a number of recommendations toward the end of the paper. The most radical would be to eliminate any form of exclusionary zoning. Barring that, they suggested expanding the portability of housing vouchers and pointed to existing mandates (in states such as California) for municipalities to plan for affordable housing when developing zoning laws.

The report also acknowledged the role that open enrollment and school choice policies in local school districts could play. Adam Emerson, a policy analyst at the conservative Fordham Institute, which advocates for school choice, told Governing that the Brookings findings demonstrate the potential impact of charter schools and district-wide enrollment for low-income students.

“If you drive up housing costs, you’re going to price a lot of people out of those districts,” he said. “And if your school district has a strict student assignment plan, with little to no choice, then you’re obviously going to create your own disparities within the school district.”

Brookings produced an interactive map covering the 100 largest metropolitan areas. The full report is below.

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