Regardless of income, there are fewer things are more important to young families than being close to good schools. The folk wisdom of the day is that urban schools aren’t as good or safe as suburban schools. I’ve suggested before that this is why urbanists of all persuasions need to make improving the quality of urban schools as no less important than land use and transit policy. But what role can land use policy play in improving educational outcomes? A recent Brookings Institute study offers an answer.
The study suggests that a major reason for the disparate academic performance between poor and wealthier students is linked to land use policies that, in effect, exclude affordable housing near good schools. If more “affordable” housing near high performing schools were allowed, that academic performance of poor students would improve. But it’s a conclusion that doesn’t seem to follow from the evidence in the study or from the practicalities of how land use policy gets made
The study anchors basis its conclusion on the theory that poor, underperforming, students of color do better when they go to school with wealthier, better performing, white students. Since, the argument in the conclusion of the study goes, zoning rules tend to exclude certain types of affordable housing from areas where there are high performing schools, relaxing those rules would allow more poor, students of color to attend better schools; disparity problem solved!
I think the study is on to something, specifically that over zoning does drive up costs. By loading up new housing construction with lots more requirements and limits, the price to own or rent goes up. Affordable housing developers get subsidies to limit passing those costs on, but the costs are still there. When infrastructure or impact fees are required it means having to spend more money that passes on costs. When heights and building footprints are limited, it squashes down potential revenue and limits housing supply. Limited supply means higher price.
But does it follow that loosening regulation for new housing in cities—a good thing—will lead to better educational outcomes for poor kids of color who don’t score well on standardized tests? That’s too big a leap. First, it assumes that simply putting kids who struggle on tests will perform better just because they’re in school with kids who don’t.
I’m not opposed to social engineering, we do it all the time, but the suggestion that by simply putting housing with a lower price next to great schools means kids with lower test scores will move in and improve their scores doesn’t add up. Educational outcomes aren’t just about test scores, and where families live is about more than price.
Furthermore, the study ignores the basic and fundamental principle that academic performance tracks with wealth, not the other way around. Simply putting poor people in more affluent areas by subsidizing housing won’t mean those poor families still won’t be struggling economically.
What’s needed is a stronger focus on creating Educationally Oriented Development in dense urban areas in which schools are better integrated into the urban fabric. Cities need better schools, not just better test scores, and that means wrapping transportation, parks, public safety, and amenities together so that families can work together to make that happen.
Collocation of schools in urban mixed-use developments would be a great start. There are some examples of efforts to do this, and Seattle already has schools like the Northwest School that are located in very urban environments. What’s needed is a reconceptualization of the school as part of the urban community, as opposed to the vision of school that many of us grew up with: a place where kids get picked up and dropped off in a car.
Building high-rise family oriented condominiums with schools included along with ground floor retail use, would reduce costs for families in transportation and build a community bond often lacking in our more dense neighborhoods. People often complain that dense neighborhoods tend to skew young, and when people have families they are forced to abandon the city for the suburbs. Investing in high quality schools in the city can reverse that flow, and make living in the city the logical and affordable choice for families of all backgrounds and incomes.