The question of education reform tends to spark unusually vicious debates in American politics. Mention charter schools, test-based teacher quality assessments, smaller (or larger) class sizes, or anything else in this space and you’re asking for a fight. In part that’s because strong interest groups with a lot of money are on both sides of every question. It also undoubtedly reflects the fact that since we’ve all gone to school, almost everyone feels entitled to an opinion about what ought to happen there. But underlying the entire debate is actually a fair amount of consensus about the reality that our current system doesn’t serve poor kids well. Everyone agrees that high-poverty schools in high-poverty neighborhoods tend to produce bad results; the questions revolve instead around what to do about it. It’s an important debate, but it’s too rarely acknowledged that this inequity is built right into the structure of American housing policy.
To play dumb for a moment, one might ask why low-income parents don’t solve the problem of bad schools in poor neighborhoods by simply moving.
The answer is pretty obvious: It’s too expensive. But this is no coincidence. Not only do better school districts benefit from well-known (and some not so well known) funding advantages, cities and towns become expensive precisely because they’re thought to offer high-quality public schools. Even in states such as Connecticut or California where advocates have succeeded in getting judicial orders to reduce funding disparities, the basic fact that people attend schools locally and affluent families want to live near good ones remains. The flipside is that struggling school systems in cities like New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles operate as a kind of de facto affordable housing program, tending to push middle-class parents into the suburbs, and subsequently leaving housing open for a mix of low-income families and childless young professionals. Poor kids, in other words, aren’t just stuck in low-performing school districts as some kind of coincidence. They live in them because that’s where it’s cheap to live.
This is something people on all sides of the education reform debate need to think harder about: If urban neighborhood schools improve, will poor families actually be able to attend them, or will educational progress be a further driver of gentrification and displacement? Concern on this front would be a terrible reason to stop trying to improve schools, but it ought to be a reminder that big city problems require a less siloed approach. The link between schooling and place isn’t vanishing any time soon, and it’s important not just to improve the schools where poor kids happen to live, but to ponder the larger dynamic of how improved conditions in urban neighborhoods all-too-often simply prices housing out of the reach of current residents.