Why Your Fancy Neighborhood Still Has Bad Schools

We’re all familiar with gentrification, the process whereby affluent professionals move into economically depressed neighborhoods, fix up houses, open stores devoted to yoga studios and overpriced coffee, and gradually make these places the sort of neighborhoods where only rich people can afford to live.

The impact of this process (which admittedly might be a little overstated) on the people who originally lived in these neighborhoods is debatable. It might make rent higher but isn’t it good for longtime owners if their property values increase?

One thing that’s interesting about the process is what happens to schools. Shouldn’t it help them? Isn’t it good for public schools if more professionals move into the neighborhood and focus on quality and improvement? In theory yes, but it turns out the one part of the neighborhood that isn’t changed much by gentrification is the public school system.

Cardozo

According to this piece at Grist:

Gentrification, it turns out, usually stops at the schoolhouse door.

Middle class residents who chose to move into low-income, segregated areas either did not have kids, sent their children to private schools, or utilized public schools “choice” policies that allowed students to attend wealthier, whiter schools outside of the neighborhood.

In fact, “school choice” is often a hallmark of cities looking to entice white and middle-class residents. City officials strike a Faustian bargain with gentrifying parents that if they agree to buy into lower-income, segregated neighborhoods they need not send their children to the same under-resourced and struggling schools as their neighbors. Instead… city officials set up elite, un-zoned public schools — often with strict admissions criteria -that educate the children of gentrified.

The picture above shows Washington, D.C.’s Cardozo High School (or “the Cardozo Education Campus,” as it’s now known). Condos in the school’s neighborhood, Columbia Heights, regularly sell for about $500,000. But still only 36 percent of 10th graders at the school are proficient in reading and math. Those condo buyers aren’t sending their kids to Cardozo.

The information comes from a 2013 study that looked at neighborhood changes in Chicago.

Gentrifier parents, it turns out, usually send their kids to other schools, either private or selective public, in other parts of the city. Even the benefits of higher property values, it turns out, don’t really trickle down to neighborhood schools.

Because school funding is based on the number of students enrolled, as more rich people more into a neighborhood, the proportion of students in local schools will actually tend to go down. And then funding will decline too.

This is something to keep in mind when considering how schools operate in changing neighborhoods. The neighborhood might change for the better, but the schools generally stay just as bad.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer