Bad Zoning Can Ruin Your Kid's Life

A new report examines the link between standardized test scores and restrictive zoning regulations.

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Add to the list of boogeymen and monsters under the bed another terrifying villain with which to spook your children: restrictive zoning regulations. Scared already, aren't they?

According to a new report from the Brookings Institution, being raised in an area with overly restrictive zoning controls can doom children to getting stuck in bad schools, which in turn can greatly limit their lifetime educational attainment and economic success. Of course, it's all much more complicated than that, but the report, by Jonathan Rothwell, shows how restrictive zoning can be a major factor in determining the success of students.

Rothwell analyzed the 2010 and 2011 standardized test results of more than 84,000 public schools in the largest 100 metropolitan areas in the U.S. and found that lower-income students tended to attend schools with lower test scores, while middle- and higher-income students attend schools with higher test scores. Numerous studies have found these same results: poor kids tend to go to schools that have a lot of other poor kids, and those schools have lower standardized test scores.

The average low-income student attends a school that tests in the 42nd percentile – the bottom half. This compares to the average student from a middle- or high-income family whose school scores in the 61st percentile.

Next, Rothwell analyzed test scores in relation to zoning rules, and he found that neighborhoods with fewer restrictions on the types of housing that can be built tend to see more of a mix of students and test scores that are higher than schools with high concentrations of lower-income students.

Housing near higher-scoring schools tends to be more expensive, which can also be a function of zoning regulations that might limit affordable housing or multiple-unit housing. Rothwell found that homes next to well-performing schools are valued an average of 2.4 times higher than those next to poor performers. That translates into nearly $11,000 more per year to live near a school that tests well. Rothwell estimates this housing cost gap can drive housing values an average of $205,000 higher in areas near schools that test well.

"Comparing the top and bottom quartiles of regulation, more restrictive zoning is associated with a nearly 40 percentage point increase in the metropolitan housing cost gap," writes Rothwell. This tends to segregate higher-income students in higher-scoring schools and lower-income students in lower-scoring schools.

But for those metropolitan areas with fewer zoning restrictions, the impact of higher test scores has only about half as much impact on raising housing prices and values, making it easier for lower-income students to live near and attend schools where test scores are higher.

Though these results show that looser zoning restrictions create more equitable education, Rothwell cautions that merely changing an area's zoning rules won't bring about changes overnight.

Top image: kilukilu / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.