Brookings: Suburban-Style Zoning Linked to Educational Inequality

Metro areas in the Northeast were found to have the highest "test-score gaps," a measure of educational inequality. Brookings found this was linked to economic segregation reinforced by large lot zoning in suburban jurisdictions. Image: ##

What do laws that mandate large yards and prevent walkable development have to do with educational opportunity? Turns out, there’s an important connection.

The Brookings Institution recently examined educational inequality across the U.S. by race and income. One of the key findings was that large-lot zoning requirements effectively restrict access to quality education for low-income children, hindering their long-term economic prospects.

Restrictive zoning laws are widespread. Brookings reports that 84 percent of municipalities impose some minimum lot size, the average being 0.4 acres. The authors note that this is larger than the average lot size of a single-family home in America — 0.26 acres. In other words, in most places it’s illegal just to build a home of typical size.

The authors report that these laws “effectively block low-income students and their families from living near or attending” public schools where students perform well on state exams. In areas with large lot laws, it is significantly more expensive to live near good public schools than it is in areas without restrictive zoning, according to the study.

This in turn has a significant effect on educational attainment and economic opportunity. Low-income students who attend top schools score two percent higher than state averages, according to Brookings. Low-income students attending low-performing schools score 18.5 percent below average.

The authors believe their research points to the inadequacy of education reforms like school vouchers or merit pay for teachers:

All of these reform strategies have one thing in common: They try to improve disadvantaged students’ access to high-performing schools through education policy. These reform ideas certainly have merit and should be carefully evaluated and considered, but they do not address one very important mechanism that sorts poor students into the lowest-scoring schools: housing policy. Housing and education policies should work together to promote access to improved school environments for low-income and minority children.

The most ambitious and consequential policy reform along these lines would be to eliminate exclusionary zoning altogether. In an ideal world, the federal government or states would forbid local governments from discriminating based on housing type (e.g. single-family attached or multi-family) or size (lot, floor, or frontage size). They could even agree to compensate jurisdictions for any disproportionate increases in local expenditures that resulted from higher density or lower-income development. Eliminating exclusionary zoning laws could produce large educational and economic benefits for low-income and minority children and families, and the U.S. economy as a whole. Unfortunately, the likelihood of such a reform, however market-oriented it may be, seems low at this time.

Barring such sweeping policy reforms, the authors point to regional or local housing and land use policies that could have an impact on improving educational equality, such as inclusionary zoning (compelling developments to include a certain percentage of low-income units) and focusing dense development near existing job centers and transit lines.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Excellent piece Ms. Schmidt, deserves wider distribution.  Hint to the authors over at Brookings to fold in public transportation access for low income students into the the numbers climb.

  • Thank you for bringing attention to this excellent research. We must begin to address the double whammy of educational and health disparities between races and incomes if we are ever to advance as a society. As a proud resident of one of the worst offenders on this list (Rochester, NY), I can see very clearly the impacts of exclusionary zoning on our low-income, minority, and Limited English Proficiency children. States should enact laws that mandate communities provide their fair share of a region’s low income housing and it should be a crime to use the zoning code to discourage or prevent affordable housing. No child left behind indeed.

  • Mike

    Very interesting and important.  And sure to be ignored by the diverse coalition of teacher-bashers running our city, state, and federal governments, not to mention our local newspapers.

    Can you imagine if all the energy and money that went into charter schools, teacher harassment, and test-driven school reform had been put into integrating suburban school districts?

  • Mike

    I just realized this is a DC piece.  I was commenting from a New York perspective.

  • Ms. Schmidt is treating this form of inequality as a bug. To a lot of people, it’s a feature. The school system in this country is not built to educate the young. It is built to issue them their lifelong credentials. The class segregation you see in these metropolitan areas will often have nothing to do with actual education. A graduate of a high school in Chicago proper is not that far behind in education compared to his complacent subruban counterparts. But his credentials are suspect.

    And to many people in the suburbs, that is a feature, not a bug. 

  • Anonymous

    Exactly what IRMO said. If you allow poor people to move to the suburbs, it defeats much of the purpose of having suburbs in the first place.

    But it may already be changing. The housing bubble, with its non-existent lending requirements, allowed even low-income people to move to the suburbs–particularly new “exurbs”. Then, the subsequent crash cemented this. These suburbs don’t have–and never will have–the exclusivity that was used to justify their existence.

  • Or

    Or bus students to different schools

  • James

    I always thought it was horribly hypocritical that Teach For America’s Phoenix organisation used to (still?) accept thousands in fundraising dollars from McMansion home builders whose construction of income-segregated subdivisions created an apartheid culture in the city between rich and poor.

  • You can have severe segregation in any configuration – poor cities and rich suburbs, poor suburbs and rich cities, favored quarters and ill-favored quarters, or a mix of poor and rich areas without pattern. Just because the US traditionally had the first configuration doesn’t mean that the others can’t reinforce school segregation. Now that the cities are gentrifying and poverty is suburbanizing, middle-class people moving into cities are pushing for more segregated schools. In Queens there are sometimes multiple schools, one for the middle class and one for the poor, organized in the same building.

    In Israel, my neighborhood, one of the densest in the country, has schools without a single Arab student, and with few Mizrahis and recent immigrants. There was recently a hate crime against a kindergarten serving children of refugees in a working-class neighborhood of Tel Aviv; it couldn’t have happened in the richer neighborhoods, not because the people there are less racist but because they’re too expensive for refugees to live in.

  • KarenD.Adame

    As they are talking about this education side then there should have been some words for the equality for all sort of people for educations…


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