Land Use and Education: Adding Schools to the Mix is the Answer

Is there a school in there?

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.

Comments

  1. Martin H. Duke says

    I can’t speak to what the story does or doesn’t prove, but I think theory suggests some ways that economically mixed density would improve outcomes.

    The first is that norms matter. If the vast majority of the student body suffers the impact of poverty, that’s likely to influence the outlook that students have, regardless of their underlying talent. The second is that a dense neighborhood allows for differentiation. If thousands of kids live in one or two square miles, it’s possible to have multiple schools that have different approaches to education. Parents can find the school that best suits their child without onerous transportation arrangements.

    • Wells says

      “What’s needed is a stronger focus on creating Education-Oriented Development in dense urban areas where schools are better integrated into the urban fabric. Cities need better schools, not just better test scores. That means wrapping transportation, parks, public safety and the amenities together so families can work together to make that happen.”

      “Co-location of schools in urban mixed-use development would be a great start. There are examples of efforts to do this and Seattle already has schools like the Northwest School located in urban environments. What’s needed is a reconceptualization of the school as part of the urban community, as opposed to the school many of us grew up with: a place where kids get picked up and dropped off in a car.”

      “Building high-rise family-oriented condos with schools included and ground floor retail would reduce costs for family transportation while building community bonds often lacking in many dense neighborhoods. People often complain that dense neighborhoods tend to skew young, or when people have families they are forced to abandon the city for the suburbs. Investing in high quality city schools can reverse that flow and make city living a more logical, affordable choice for families of all backgrounds and incomes.”

      I love to edit other people’s words! Try printing this editted version. Excellent otherwise storytelling. [ot]

  2. Matt the Engineer says

    It seems to me that one large reason that academic performance tracks with wealth is because wealth creates better schools. Taking several of the best elementary schools in Seattle as an example (all in comparatively wealthy areas), parents fundraise and provide a large amount of financial support for the schools. And I’m not sure how school funding works in this state, but in most places a large part is from local real estate taxes – and the wealthy families have expensive homes.

    If this is true, mixing incomes in a neighborhood will surely benefit the poor children (at the expense of the rich, so be careful we don’t drive rich kids out to private school). That said, there’s no reason this can’t happen in dense areas. There are some beautiful, expensive condos downtown as well as low-rent old apartments – a downtown school might have a good balance.

    • Andrew Smith says

      Certainly wealth makes better schools, but it also makes better prepared students. This is basically the main point of Unequal Childhoods (highly recommended, btw). Here’s an exerpt from something in the Atlantic on Unequal Childhoods:

      Lareau writes that the working class and the middle class have very different methods of raising their children. Poor and working-class parents practice what Lareau calls accomplishment of natural growth parenting. Their children have long periods of unstructured time where they shoot the breeze with neighbors and cousins, roam around the neighborhood, and watch TV with their large, extended families. Parents give orders to the children, rather than soliciting their opinions. Parents believe that they should care for their children, but kids reach adulthood naturally without too much interference from adults.

      In contrast, middle-class kids are driven to soccer practice and band recitals, are involved in family debates at dinner time, and are told that to ask their teacher why they received a B on a French exam. They talk, talk, talk to their kids all the time. Even discipline becomes a matter of negotiation and bargaining between the child and the adult. Lareau calls this style of parenting concerted cultivation.

      Parenting styles have a huge impact on future outcomes, says Lareau. She speculates that concerted cultivation creates adults who know how to challenge authority, navigate bureaucracy, and manage their time — all the skills needed to remain in the middle class. The working-class kids lack that training.

      This stuff makes a big difference, and can explain part of the gap that is closed poorer students mixing with richer ones: they see what the others do it and copy it (presumably this effect works both ways).

      • Matt the Engineer says

        Yes, I believe I heard that author speak on the topic (though haven’t read the book). There are also some great studies out that show attending preschool is a very strong factor in success in life – and I’d love to see universial preschool.

        I did say that one factor is well funded schools. I certainly don’t believe it’s the only factor.

      • Andrew Smith says

        Certainly.

        I still do wonder how much of these effects are self-selecting. The parents who send their kids to preschool might be the ones surround their kids with books and teach them good time-management habits, etc.

        Not to say there is no difference between going to preschool and not going for everyone. I always wonder about education. Public education is really expensive, and it’s really wasteful if we spend 90% of what it takes to get success to get half the results we could get if we spent 100%. Preschool is this in a nutshell. It’s cheaper to send all kids to preschool (or full-day kindergarten) and have 80% graduate than it is to “educate” them for 12.5 years but have 30-40% of them drop out in the 10th grade. Seems penny-wise and pound-foolish.

    • Bernie says

      The State provides a basic level of support to all public schools based on attendance. That means if kids go to private school State funding is cut. Local levies are an important source of additional funds allocated district wide which isn’t affected by public vs. private school attendance (i.e. we don’t have a voucher system). But the State limits this taxing authority. I think the reasoning behind this is rich districts would be less willing to support State funding and prefer to “go it alone”. This is also why teacher salaries are not allowed to be indexed to local housing cost. It only works to a certain extend because so much fund raising is “off the books”.

      Seattle School District isn’t hampered by a lack of taxes. In fact they have special permission to to exceed the general State level because of needs based on maintaining or replacing some very old infrastructure. The higher cost for Seattle schools is also on a per student basis because so many of the students show up for class completely unprepared relative to the more wealthy suburban districts.

      • Andrew Smith says

        It only works to a certain extend because so much fund raising is “off the books”.

        This also matters. I remember my sister telling me how when she was PTA president when her kids were in elementary school they raised enough money to keep two teachers who would otherwise be let go. This was a small community school with fewer than twenty teachers after the additional funding. That’s no small difference, and having those involved parents is obviously a huge deal.

      • Matt the Engineer says

        Here’s the level we’re dealing with locally: “Schools such as McGilvra of Madison Park and John Hay of Queen Anne have raised upward of $240,000 through PTA fundraising.”

        On one hand, great for them. It’s their money and their kids. But on the other, would they be giving this much if they didn’t think their school needed it to raise to a functional level? Why are we ok with other schools being less functional?

      • Andrew Smith says

        But on the other, would they be giving this much if they didn’t think their school needed it to raise to a functional level?

        There could be a lot of answers to this question (signalling status or ‘goodness’, competition with other parents, maybe they were going to give the money away anyway?, etc.), but the fact remains that $240,000 for a school with a couple million dollar budget is a big deal.

      • Andrew Smith says

        Yikes! It is worth pointing out the highest Seattle school on the list is the one where they take the “smartest” (read: best prepared) kids: Lowell. Presumably these kids’ parents are more wealthy and more active. I also wonder how much the PTA raised there.

        I’m not disagreeing with the idea that more money in the school = better schools. I’m just saying there is at least one other factor here: the after school lives of the children. I don’t know how much we can affect the actual lives of students when they leave school, but we can do much more to prepare them for school (your preschool idea is a very good one), and make sure they have something to do after school. Sure, it’s not cheap to give free soccer on Saturdays, etc., and I’m not sure it’s more bang for the buck than just giving the schools more money, but it’s certainly cheaper than doing nothing.

      • GuyOnBeaconHill says

        At the link provided by Matt the Engineer, the percentage of students that qualify as “low income” is listed for each school. Here’s the percentage of low income students at Seattle’s best performing schools: Lowell 8.0%, View Ridge 2.0%, Wedgwood 11.6%, McGilvra 9.9%. Compare those numbers to the lowest performing schools: Hawthorne 76.6%, West Seattle 78.7%, Northgate 85.0%, TT Minor 81.6%.

      • Bernie says

        I noticed that the highest ranking Bellevue school on the list was Cherry Crest, which happens to be the closest to my house and only came in at number 39. I was curious how the trend would play out at the high school level. I wasn’t surprised that three of Bellevue’s four high schools were top 15 but Sammamish, for which Cherry Crest is a feeder school was all the way down at 265th! The breakdown by rank/% low income; International School #1/2.3%, Newport #8 8.9%, Bellevue #15 9.9%, Interlake #47/22.5% and Sammamish #265/28.7%.

        Sammamish is not lacking for infrastructure or good teachers but it’s pretty clear that doesn’t make up the gap if a student doesn’t have the desire to learn and the requisite skills coming in. It’s easy to think that starting early would be easier but it’s not. If the family structure isn’t there then short of the Indian boarding school model the students are doomed to underachive until the gap is to wide to cross. It’s interesting that liberal thought would preclude a “kinder gentler” version of this on the grounds of destroying ethnic heritage but also abhors home schooling because of a fear children won’t be properly indoctrinated.

    • Rob says

      wealthier people on average have higher IQs. IQ is highly hereditary. Children from wealthier families start out with higher potential, and the stability, value for education and parental support levelage this potential.

      • Nathanael says

        IQ is mostly teachable, not hereditary. Check the studies. People can totally cram for IQ tests and do far better.

        Certainly there’s a genetic component to smarts, but there are smart people with stupid children and vice versa, lots of ‘em.

        Smart parents not only help their kids get educations, they’re also are very good at arranging for their stupid kids to “pass for smart”, which may be part of why people get confused about this — nobody in their right mind thinks George W. Bush was smart, but he was sheparded through Yale.

        It is of course true that wealthier parents and parents who pay more attention result in kids doing better in school. But it’s not hereditary except in the sense that inheriting wealth is hereditary.

  3. Andrew Smith says

    It does seem from the article that zoning correlates with gaps in achievement, but it doesn’t seem to clearly indicate that lack of strict zoning correlates with better attainment overall.

    On average, elementary school test scores are at the 66th percentile in the most restrictive group of jurisdictions, and at the 25th percentile in the least restrictive group of jurisdictions.

    Futhermore, most of the zoning factors they are looking at speak to single-family homes exclusively.

    Four variables are used in the report that are considered especially relevant to restrictions on dense or inexpensive housing: Minimum lot size, whether multi-family housing is allowed only be special permit, the longest length of frontage requirements in the town, and the percentage of zoning districts in the town that require large frontage requirements.

    Of these, only one has any affect on what we typically consider density on this blog (though obviously there is a difference between 15 units/acre SFH and 5 units/acre SFH).

    I dunno, overall, I think this is not as conclusively “pro-density” as it appears at first glance.

  4. Butch says

    You also haven’t factored in what percentage of parents – typically high income ones – will send their children to private or parochial schools. At the end of the day those with higher income will spend whatever is necessary to give their children the best education regardless of where they live.

    • Nathanael says

      Or at least what they think is the best education. Genuinely intelligent high-income parents will get their children the best education.

      Dumb and crazy high-income parents will get their children *what they think is* the best education, which can include some pretty crazy stuff, particularly if the parents are religious extremists.

  5. the358 says

    Speaking of building schools in urban areas, Seattle School District is talking about building a new school in SLU. It’s part of all 3 of the draft proposals for their next building levy (the levy is called BEX IV), which will be on the ballot next February.

    http://www.seattleschools.org/modules/groups/homepagefiles/cms/1583136/File/Departmental%20Content/school%20board/11-12%20agendas/032812agenda/20120328_Presentation_BEXIV.pdf

    There is some debate among the parent community about whether it’s the right time to build such a school, given the massive overcrowding and crumbling buildings in other parts of the district, and the district’s dire budget picture. For example:

    http://saveseattleschools.blogspot.com/2012/03/bex-iv-full-of-mysteries.html

    My oldest is starting kindergarten in the fall. We live near a school which has about half of its students living in poverty. It’s an OK school with staff who seem really dedicated, but it is seriously under-resourced. We chose instead to send our kid to a more distant school with a very wealthy PTSA that raises a ton of money. In fact, last year it raised enough money that it can offer full-time PE to all students; our neighborhood school can’t afford that. Yes, you read that right, the district doesn’t fully fund PE for elementary school kids. Several of the schools we toured get PE once a week, or they get it for a week every third or fourth week (it rotates with art or music or some other class). And let’s not even talk about art/music funding, or school nurses, or school counselors–those were cut years ago. As a parent, it’s pretty depressing, and it’s easy to see why kids at affluent schools are doing better than kids at poor schools. And also easy to understand why families that can afford it choose private school.

    • Andrew Smith says

      I have considered private school but will do what you are doing instead. Ultimately, I’m better off teaching my kids myself for the most part.

    • Butch says

      You’re lucky that you got that option to chose another excellent school for your child. The changes that Seattle Schools made recently make that harder, if not impossible, for most. In particular, I’m referring to choosing an excellent school.

      • the358 says

        Yes, we literally won the lottery to get him into the school he will be attending. We have friends who were wait-listed for that same school.

      • JohnS says

        Ironically much of what’s driving that is transportation costs – the previous ‘choice’ policy led to a heck of a lot of bus service, which is expensive. Starting this fall every elementary in Seattle will have a Safe Routes to School program, encouraging kids and parents to walk and bike to school.

        Neighborhood schools, of course, will only highlight the disparities between PTSA fundraising at places like McGilvra and, say, John Muir.

      • Matt the Engineer says

        This is a good point at which to ask the question: what do we do about this? Imposed mixed-income neighborhoods? Ban PTA funding? Poor school subsidies?

        The first option sounds the best to me. Though not so much imposed as encouraged. Start mixing up our single family zones with higher density housing, and spread our subsidized housing throughout the city. Of course keep both near transit nodes, but there’s at least one good transit node in every neighborhood in the city.

      • Aleks says

        @Matt: If we funded our schools at an appropriate level, this wouldn’t matter. Private, for-profit companies don’t waste their time soliciting donations, because they don’t need to.

      • Bernie says

        what do we do about this?

        Well, a few ideas that have had a high success rate are charter schools, performance vs seniority salary and school vouchers. Vote out the influence of the teachers union and we might be able to focus State funding on ideas that benefit the students and the public paying the bills.

    • Lack Thereof says

      358 nails it here:

      We live near a school which has about half of its students living in poverty. It’s an OK school with staff who seem really dedicated, but it is seriously under-resourced. We chose instead to send our kid to a more distant school with a very wealthy PTSA that raises a ton of money. In fact, last year it raised enough money that it can offer full-time PE to all students; our neighborhood school can’t afford that. Yes, you read that right, the district doesn’t fully fund PE for elementary school kids. Several of the schools we toured get PE once a week, or they get it for a week every third or fourth week (it rotates with art or music or some other class). And let’s not even talk about art/music funding, or school nurses, or school counselors–those were cut years ago. As a parent, it’s pretty depressing, and it’s easy to see why kids at affluent schools are doing better than kids at poor schools.

      The majority of schools in this state are currently making up their funding gap with local levies and private (largely PTA) donations. State funding for schools is inadequate, and that’s been established in court.

      A school in most neighborhoods will have a PTA capably wrangling extra funding out of the neighborhood’s disposable income. That extra funding first goes to fill in the gaps, like 358′s full-time PE. In wealthier neighborhoods, they can raise money for all sorts of awesome extras. However, a school in a neighborhood where most families have little to no disposable income is not able to squeeze this funding out of the community, and are left with gaps in their programs. Things that seem like a basic bedrock part of the public school experience (like full-time PE), are missing without the private funding to provide it. And the situation only gets worse when comparatively wealthier parents take their children, and their PTA support, to out-of-area schools (not that anyone can honestly blame them).

      • Nathanael says

        We have a similar problem in New York; the school funding system was ruled to be a violation of the state constitution *years* ago, but the courts haven’t been willing to outright order the legislature to appropriate funds, so nothing has happened…

        California’s having a similar problem with a legislature-court standoff with its underfunded, overcrowded prisons; the courts finally just started ordering prisoners to be released onto the streets in order to address the *federal* constitutional violations.

        What a mess. Why don’t state legislatures do their jobs?

  6. Geoff says

    What good are schools when all the high density housing being built is no larger than 2 bedrooms?

    • Matt the Engineer says

      Chicken vs. egg. Are there no schools downtown because there are no family-sized apartments? Or are there no family-sized apartments because there are no schools downtown?

      • Matt the Engineer says

        But who will build these homes if nobody wants to live in them because there’s no school?

      • Andrew Smith says

        It’s worth noting that family-sized apartments (ie, anything over two-bedrooms) are extremely difficult to build today due to regulatory requirements.

      • the358 says

        In a perfect world, a school in SLU makes a lot of sense. I hope families will move into SLU, or that people who currently live in SLU who decide to have families will choose to stay there and live an urban family life. I would be one of those families if I could talk my suburb-raised husband into it.

        Problem is, the district (a) is broke, and (b) has a lot of icky and/or over-capacity buildings in certain parts of town that they need to fix. Example: we toured Thornton Creek because my parents live close to it (I grew up in that house), and about half the school is in portables, and the main building hasn’t been substantially renovated in my lifetime (I am in my mid-30′s). And that wasn’t anywhere near the worst building we saw (I’m looking at you, Salmon Bay–so lovely on the outside, what an awful 1970 remodel on the inside). Honestly, with the amount of money they will be asking voters to give them, they’ll be lucky if the levy passes at all, so it seems a little irresponsible to be spending it building for a potential population of kids rather than an actual population of kids.

      • Nathanael says

        “It’s worth noting that family-sized apartments (ie, anything over two-bedrooms) are extremely difficult to build today due to regulatory requirements.”

        Good grief, what bogus regulations are those? There are 3-bedroom and 4-bedroom apartments all over all the major cities of the world.

      • Bernie says

        A major regulatory requirement making it more expensive to build 3 or 4 bedroom MF units is the requirement for a secondary egress, usually a window for all bedrooms. Highrise units in particular typically only have one maybe two outside walls. It’s doable but by and large it’s not what the market wants so why create expensive units that are hard to rent when you can carve out two smaller units that combined bring in more income?

      • Geoff says

        High rises are one thing, but even low rise density family friendly housing is hard to come by.

  7. says

    Sorry, but isn’t this yet another case of you contradicting your primary belief.

    Density is good.

    Yet, now you are saying that in order for density to “work” you have to build it near something that is already good…and not dense.

    This goes back to my yet unanswered questions such as why is downtown Seattle, with its highly transit-rich and dense lifestyle, such a poor place to live.

    • says

      Here’s something else…Philadephia has basically given up as a “city” and seems to be dissolving it’s school district!

      Under the five year plan, 40 underutilized or under-performing schools would be closed next year. Six more schools would be closed each year after that until 2017, bringing the total number of closed schools to 64.

      Decentralization would also result in the staff at school headquarters to be reduced from 600 to 250. Operating expenses would be cut by $122 million. $156 million would be cut in wages and benefits. There would also be a 7% reduction per child in charter schools which would be frozen at that number for three years.

      http://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/local/Sweeping-Changes-Proposed-for-Philly-Schools-148709425.html

      This effect seems like a far more realistic view of the future rather than “building density near schools”.

      We’re in a shrinking or static population phase all over this country. Today it was reported that there may be more people going to Mexico than coming from! Yes — negative immigration from our primary population source!

      This calls for a whole lot more triage. We have to isolate what works and what doesn’t and cut our losses.

      • Nathanael says

        As the PFT President said, this is just a cynical sellout move on the part of the Philly school district. Disaster will follow.

        As for emigration to Mexico, I think we know why that’s happening — because this country has been allowed to become *very unattractive*, with abusive police in most (not all) parts of the country, corrupt courts in many (not all) parts of the country, and crumbling infrastructure everywhere — and of course high unemployment and low wages!

        At this point what have we got that Mexico doesn’t? Better sewage systems? Less violent drug war? OK, those are big deals, but the drug war is only on the northern border with the US, and Mexico’s working on the sewer systems. People who speak Spanish may find substantially more opportunity in Mexico City.

        We shouldn’t accept this. We should make this country more attractive than Mexico.

    • Geoff says

      Its a poor place to live because there aren’t many places to live. Yes it is a transit rich and dense OFFICE environment, but it is hardly a dense living environment.

      • says

        Not dense? I lived in Center City Philadelphia for 2 years. It’s got plenty of density. The row houses all crammed together?

        Subway, trolleys, Amtrak…lots of transit as you say, integrated in the entire metro area.

      • Geoff says

        I was responding to your post about downtown Seattle. Please think before you respond with such a condescending tone.

  8. John Pehrson says

    Regarding Pre-K, its affectiveness and its availability, I think we’re making progress in Seattle. The City of Seattle’s Families and Education Levy has been offering this to some of Seattle’s students whose parents make less than 300% of the poverty level. The new level will double that number, I think to something like 700 children. That couple with the federal Head Start Program and the State ECAP program will make significant progress and help children who live in poverty have a more fair start.
    Regarding a north downtown public Elementary School, it isn’t just SLU, it would be for Belltown, Denny Triangle, Uptown and SLU. The City has directed a large percent of its growth in these neighborhoods and even more is planned for the future. City plans would have a population in those neighborhoods of over 40,000 by 2024. It is only fair that communities of that size have their own Public Elementary School. To do otherwise would be the equivalent of ‘busing only’ for those neighborhoods.
    John Pehrson

  9. Julie says

    School-appropriate facilities built into family-friendly highrise apartment buildings could really allow for dramatic school improvement. For one thing, if the Seattle school district didn’t have to manage buildings (something it is notoriously bad at), it could better focus on the primary mission of education. Ditto for transportation. Furthermore, these facilities could be leased by private OR public schools. Family involvement in schools would be far easier. Schools could be smaller and more intimate, without necessarily raising the cost per pupil, if the school has the flexibility of leasing its facility. Let’s do it!

    • the358 says

      I really like the idea of the district leasing space in a high-rise building. But I believe the plan on the table is to build something instead.

      • Nathanael says

        Don’t know about Seattle, but districts generally buy because leasing costs are often exorbitant.

        It should really be possible to arrange some sort of system where school facilities get a low-rate, long-term lease in a building, while developers get permission to pack more housing units into the rest of the building…

Sign in or create an account to save your credentials and make commenting faster.



You may want to read our comment policy.