February 6, 2017

Education Policy Shapes Neighborhoods

President Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, would represent a dramatic change in education policy from the previous administration. If confirmed by the Senate this week, DeVos is widely expected to prioritize policies and programs that provide greater funding for charter schools, private school vouchers and other alternatives to traditional public school education. While the Obama Administration provided funding for “school choice” options, it also pushed for greater investment in America’s public schools.

As secretary of education, DeVos would be in a position to profoundly influence communities across the country in ways far beyond education.  

Shifts in education policy would impact affordable housing and community development, as the sectors are tightly intertwined. Both continue to grapple with racial equity, access to opportunity and economic mobility, and housing choices are often proxies for educational access. Recent research led by Raj Chetty demonstrates that zip code plays a leading role in a child’s future outcomes and potential for upward mobility.[1]

As the new administration sets its education policy agenda, an important takeaway from school desegregation efforts is that school districts that have remained committed to desegregation over the long-term have more integrated housing patterns today. While segregation in schools has largely been a result of housing and neighborhood segregation, research suggests that long-term school desegregation programs can help to reduce residential segregation.[2] An analysis of the largest 100 metropolitan areas found that in regional school districts where schools are racially balanced, the incidence of white flight is reduced, even if the racial mix of the neighborhood changes.[3] Jefferson County in Kentucky, for example, has seen decreases in housing segregation due in part to its voluntary, county-wide school desegregation program. This is not to say that school desegregation results in residential integration across the board, but school districts that remained committed to such programs have seen more integrated housing patterns.

Research also shows that school desegregation had positive effects on the academic performances and future life outcomes of students who attended integrated schools. Between 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education) and 1988 (peak integration), the academic achievement gap between black and white students in the U.S. narrowed from 40 points to 18 points, marking the largest decline in U.S. history.[4]

A study by Rucker C. Johnson examined the life trajectories of children born between 1945 and 1968, following them through 2013, to determine the long-term effects of court-ordered desegregation.[5] Johnson found that for black students, school desegregation significantly increased educational and occupational attainments, college quality, adult earnings and health status; it also reduced the probability of incarceration. For white students, Johnson found that school desegregation had no negative effects across these areas. His conclusion: Integration is not a zero-sum game.

Additional current research affirms the benefits of a diverse learning environment. A report led by Amy Stuart Wells at The Century Foundation examines the existing literature on school diversity and integration, and concludes that racially and economically diverse schools are generally positive for all students academically as well as socially.[6] Not only are these settings advantageous to low-income students and students of color, but such schools are also found to be beneficial to white and higher-income students.

However, the number of segregated schools and the number of students attending segregated schools has increased in recent years. Recent data published by the Government Accountability Office shows that the number of segregated schools – where 90 percent of students are low-income and persons of color – doubled between 2001 and 2014.[7]

Both DeVos and HUD Secretary nominee Dr. Ben Carson would, if confirmed, have enormous influence over programs and policies that affect the opportunities available to children of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. It is critical for those in the education and housing sectors to work outside their silos and be cognizant of how federal policies within both agencies affect the populations they serve.

At Enterprise Community Partners, we believe that safe and decent affordable housing is the foundation for opportunity. While housing is the foundation, it does not stand alone – it must connect residents to jobs, transit, health care and good schools. For children, access to a high-quality education is critical to future outcomes and economic mobility. Enterprise has provided capital to communities that has gone toward affordable housing as well as schools.

We know that high levels of educational attainment (as measured by test scores, graduation rates, college attainment and other indicators) are associated with higher-paying jobs and lower levels of unemployment. We also know that where families live has a significant impact on where children can go to school and the quality of the education they receive. When neighborhoods are racially and economically segregated, local school enrollment tends to reflect those demographics.

Today, housing organizations working in low-income, racially segregated neighborhoods often serve the same population as the schools in those struggling areas. Their goals and challenges are similar, and their measures for success are co-dependent. Even though they’re not a part of the education field, housing organizations are in a unique position to help provide low-income families with access to good schools. They are able to invest in affordable housing that is in high-opportunity neighborhoods with good schools, that is close to transit that connects to better schools, or that is in low-income areas as part of larger revitalization efforts that includes schools. Additionally, a good school can serve as a key anchor institution for neighborhood revitalization, as the work by Purpose Built Communities has demonstrated. It is critical for those in housing and education to work together to help raise academic achievement and create neighborhoods of opportunity for all children.

This week’s vote reminds us of how important it is for policymakers and practitioners to work across sectors when serving the same populations.


[1] Raj Chetty et al., “Where is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States,” The Equality of Opportunity Project, June 2014, http://www.equality-of-opportunity.org/assets/documents/mobility_geo.pdf.  

[2] Gary Orfield et al., “State of American Social Scientists of Research on School Desegregation at the U.S. Supreme Court in Parents v. Seattle School District and Meredith v. Jefferson County,” The Urban Review 40, no. 40 (January 2008): 96-136, doi:10.1007/s11256-007-0073-7.

[3] The Institute on Race & Poverty, “Minority Suburbanization, Stable Integration, and Economic Opportunity,” University of Minnesota Law School, February 2006, http://www.irpumn.org/uls/resources/projects/Minority_Suburbanization_full_report_032406.pdf.

[4] This American Life, “562: The Problem We All Live With,” WBEZ, July 2015, http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/562/the-problem-we-all-live-with.

[5] Rucker C. Johnson, “Long-Run Impacts of School Desegregation & School Quality on Adult Attainments,” National Bureau of Economic Research, January 2011 (Updated September 2015), http://www.nber.org/papers/w16664.pdf.

[6] Amy Stuart Wells et al., “How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students,” The Century Foundation, February 2016, https://tcf.org/content/report/how-racially-diverse-schools-and-classrooms-can-benefit-all-students/.

[7] U.S. Government Accountability Office. K-12 Education: Better Use of Information Could Help Agencies Identify Disparities and Address Racial Discrimination.  GAO-16-345. Washington, DC, 2016. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-345.

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