To improve outcomes for poor kids, let them move to the suburbs

February 09, 2011|By Robert C. Embry Jr

One of the most important recent pieces of education research was released last year — and promptly ignored. The Century Foundation's report "Housing Policy is School Policy" confirms the seminal 1966 finding of Johns Hopkins University sociologist James Coleman: The school-based variable that most profoundly affects student performance is the socioeconomic composition of the school. In short, poor children do better if they attend schools with affluent children.

The "new" news in the report? It highlights the critical out-of-school influence of where the low-income children reside. Poor children attending an affluent school do even better, it turns out, if they also live in an affluent neighborhood.

In this study, researcher Heather Schwartz examines the impact of Montgomery County's economically integrated housing policies on the academic success of low-income families who live in federally subsidized public housing scattered throughout the county. Families were randomly assigned by the county's public housing authority to both affluent and relatively non-affluent neighborhoods.

The findings: Children who lived in neighborhoods where less than 20 percent of the elementary school population was poor significantly outperformed similar low-income children who lived in neighborhoods with public schools that had more than 35 percent of students in poverty. In fact, poor children in the low-poverty schools were able to close the achievement gap with their wealthier suburban peers by 50 percent in math and one-third in reading. This was true even though the group of poorer schools received additional funding to implement the more traditional remedial programs to address the academic challenges of low-income students.

A wide body of research during the past three decades has documented the educational benefits of moving from high-poverty to low-poverty neighborhoods. Research on the remedy in the landmark 1976 Supreme Court housing decision in Hills v. Gautreaux demonstrated that children whose families moved from public housing and other inner-city Chicago neighborhoods to racially and economically integrated suburban neighborhoods were far more likely to succeed in school and go on to college or full-time employment than children whose families stayed in Chicago.

The key finding of this cumulative research is that the combination of living in a low-poverty neighborhood and attending a low-poverty school impacts educational performance of poor children more than traditional reforms and increased funding.

If the socioeconomic composition of the neighborhood and the school are so critical to the educational success of poor children, why have these factors been neglected in the federal Department of Education's reform agenda? Why is this remedy generally ignored in lawsuits attempting to obtain an adequate education for poor children? Why can one look in vain at state and local school board meetings to find any mention of the subject?

One reason is that, to date, there has been no legal compulsion to do so.

A second reason is the long-standing hostility of suburban jurisdictions that routinely oppose any efforts to economically integrate their low-poverty schools, even in small increments.

And finally, there is a shortage of affordable housing units in the affluent neighborhoods that would yield the biggest educational difference.

Given all that, if one agrees with the research on the positive impact of neighborhood and school economic integration, what might be done for Baltimore's poorest families?

One potential scenario: Maryland could enact legislation to permit state education aid to Baltimore City to be used as a rent certificate for families of poor children in failing schools to move to low-poverty neighborhoods in other school districts. It is of interest to note that the Maryland's state aid to Baltimore City schools is $12,191 per pupil, roughly the net cost of a rent subsidy needed to permit an urban family living in concentrated poverty to move to a low-poverty, suburban neighborhood.

Such a shift would give low-income children access to low-poverty schools on a voluntary basis, with the added benefits of living in the same community as their more affluent classmates. The good news is that there are at least 88 public schools in the counties surrounding Baltimore City that would qualify as potential sites, with less than 20 percent of children in poverty.

Clearly, there are many obstacles to accessing the opportunities posed by integrative housing and schools for our poorest families. Yet the research is persuasive: The answer to how to close the achievement gap between poor and rich kids may not be in the debates about class size, math curricula and other school-based reforms but in the state's facilitating the enrollment of low-income children in low-poverty schools and housing their families in low-poverty neighborhoods.

Now we must decide whether we continue to ignore the implications of this evidence or choose to find solutions that facilitate greater socioeconomic integration of low-income children.

Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, is a former member of the Board of School Commissioners of Baltimore City and former president of the Maryland State Board of Education. His e-mail is embry@abell.org.

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