By Rowan McGarry-Williams (PO’ 21)
For many Americans, the relationship between home and school seems simple enough: they live in a neighborhood and they go to their neighborhood’s public school. But this simplicity belies an entire, constructed network of policy decisions. For example: how does one define a neighborhood, or a school zone? Why do neighborhoods look the way they do? How did schools become so connected to the concept of neighborhoods? Further muddying the waters is the rise of charter schools, magnet schools, and other school choice policies that aim to sever the link between neighborhood and school altogether. To understand this relationship, it is necessary to abandon the notion that education policy is simply downstream from housing policy. Instead, a historically grounded analysis of American neighborhoods reveals that notions of home and school are wrapped up in one another, and policies that target one institution interact dynamically with the other.
The effects of housing policy on schools are rooted in the well-established institution of the neighborhood school. Take, for instance, developments in Montgomery County, Maryland, outlined by an influential report aptly titled “Housing Policy is School Policy.” The report finds that the county’s unique inclusionary zoning program—in which a portion of new units was required to be converted to subsidized public housing—allowed low-income students living in that public housing to attend largely affluent schools. These students, moreover, “far outperformed” other students in public housing who attended the county’s less affluent schools. Montgomery County speaks to the potential for equity-driven housing policy to foster a more equitable school system. The opposite, however, is far more common. Historically, policies that segregated housing across the country resulted in segregated neighborhood schools. Today, exclusionary zoning policies in many cities effectively ban affordable, multi-unit housing from certain areas and thus lock low-income families out of traditional public schools in those areas.
Increasing levels of school choice, in which families are not automatically assigned to their neighborhood schools, have complicated somewhat this link between home and school in many cities. In some cases, school choice has served to increase inequity—charter schools and private vouchers, for instance, have tended to concentrate low-income and nonwhite students while delivering minimal or even negative effects on student achievement. Moreover, in cities like San Francisco and Minneapolis that have adopted randomized lotteries or open enrollment policies, affluent families with the time, social capital, and resources to navigate complex policies and transport their children long distances have leveraged the system in their favor. On the other hand, magnet schools, which draw students from across a district and tend to focus on a specific philosophy or subject area, often have positive effects on student achievement and decrease segregation by attracting a diverse pool of students. That said, these benefits are limited to the specific school rather than the entire district. Clearly, even policymakers who agree on separating housing policy from education policy may go about doing so in very different ways.
Despite the increasing power of the school choice movement, the neighborhood public school remains a fixture of the American education system. Certainly, the commitment of residents of affluent, white neighborhoods and suburbs to the protection of their schools from outsiders contributes to the endurance of the neighborhood school. Yet these communities are not the only ones committed to the concept. Studies of Chicago and Nashville, for instance, have demonstrated the strong resistance of lower-income, historically black or Latino communities to school closures in their neighborhoods. This resistance is often galvanized by the school’s significance as a community hub and site of social growth. The centrality of schools to American neighborhoods didn’t come out of nowhere. In Making the Unequal Metropolis, Ansley Erickson tracks the ways in which pioneering urban planners conceived of a “neighborhood unit” as centered around a given school site. And in the South, where schools were legally required to serve one race, city officials would sometimes force changes in housing patterns by relocating schools. This history demonstrates the ways in which schools can shape the contours of housing policy, rather than the other way around.
The “spatial organization” of schools, to borrow Erickson’s term, continues to impact and interact with the spatial organization of housing. When families look to purchase a home, they base their decision in part on the quality of the neighborhood school. Indeed, research has shown that neighborhood services are among the most important variables homebuyers consider, and among those services, “school quality” is the “largest single explanation of community choice.” The prevalence of families “buying in” to school zones through housing purchases can interact with exclusionary zoning policies to create a situation in which only wealthy families are able to afford houses in neighborhoods with high-performing neighborhood schools.
Zoning, writes Jessica Trounstine in Segregation by Design, has acted throughout American history as a “tool that enabled elected officials… to target public goods to certain constituencies.” Schools are perhaps the most important of these public goods. Thus, zoning becomes especially attractive when spending on schools is high, as more is at stake in the battles over who can access those schools. Trounstine finds that “at the minimum education spending level… cities had 0 probability of adopting zoning. This rises to a 28% probability at the highest level of school spending.” Historically, then, exclusionary housing policies have frequently stemmed from a desire to monopolize access to high quality public schools.
Thus, the relationship between housing policy and education policy flows in both directions. This complexity has important policy implications. Policymakers who want to change housing policy or school policy will struggle to do so unless they take both into account. Moreover, policymakers working in either field must be attentive to the potential for affecting the other, whether intentionally or not. Lastly, a vision of urban policy that recognizes the mutual dependence of different policy domains does not stop at the relationship between housing and education. Instead, this more holistic framework can include other issues that interact with homes and schools, including health and medicine, labor, economic growth and inequality, and transportation.