Smart Zoning as an Education Reform

In the feature piece The New Segregation which appears in the November/December issue of the Washington Monthly, Carl Chancellor and Richard D. Kahlenberg use Montgomery County, Maryland as a kind of lab experiment to determine the answer to an age-old question: “If you are a low-income student, are you better off in a lower-poverty school that spends less per pupil or a higher-poverty school that spends more?”

The experiment was made possible by a 1974 law that created “inclusionary housing” throughout the county. The idea was simple. Developers were required to price “12.5 percent to 15 percent of [their] new housing stock” so that it would be “affordable to low-income and working-class families.”

Over the next thirty-five years this resulted in about 12,000 homes that housed lower income families whose kids were in majority-affluent neighborhoods and school districts. In other words, kids weren’t bussed from majority-poor neighborhoods into well-to-do school districts. They lived in proximity to more affluent people as well as going to school with them.

Montgomery County also developed a plan specifically designed to help the performance of majority-poor schools.

The most recent progressive approach involved the allocation of school resources. In 2000, the district superintendent, Jerry Weast, decided to spend a boatload of extra money—$2,000 per pupil—to help students attending the district’s high-poverty schools. The system provided all-day kindergarten, reduced class sizes, and investment in teacher development, among other improvements.

These two factors, higher than normal economic integration and extra funding for the poorer schools, allowed a comparison to be made. Who did better, the poor kids who got extra funding for all-day kindergarten and reduced class size or the poor kids who lived with and went to school with a majority of more affluent students?

The answer was that economic integration (a zoning regulation which wasn’t an education-specific reform) was more effective for improving student performance than more investment directly in the schools.

Chancellor and Kahlenberg bring more research to the table to demonstrate that it is the majority-character of a school that matters. So, a child from an affluent family will suffer academically if he or she attends a high-poverty school, but they will not suffer if they are attending an affluent school which brings in some impoverished students. The impoverished students do better without damaging the prospects of the kids who are already there.

Of course, it’s not easy to convince affluent parents that their kids won’t suffer some disadvantages by coming into contact with kids from poor families, but the research shows that they having nothing to worry about and may even benefit from exposure to different kinds of people from different walks of life. Kids from Latino backgrounds make excellent Spanish tutors, for example.

As the country changes demographically, more parents are seeking diverse environments for their children’s education as the best way to prepare them for life. The best solution may be to create artificially economically diverse communities rather than artificially racially diverse school districts. Poor kids don’t benefit from more racially diverse school districts unless there is more economic diversity as well.

Read the whole thing.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.