August 24, 2023

Education and Housing Advocates Must Work Together to Dismantle the Segregation of Our Schools and Communities

By Carrie Hahnel

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In 2011, Kelley Williams-Bolar was prosecuted and jailed by the state of Ohio for using her father’s address to get her daughters into a better high school. Ohio, where Williams-Bolar was prosecuted, is one of at least 24 states that criminalize parents and guardians who try to venture beyond their neighborhoods to find the best educational options for their children.  

Two of my Bellwether colleagues co-authored a recent report digging into this issue. Released by Available to All, When Good Parents Go to Jail: The Criminalization of Address Sharing in Public Education argues that restrictive attendance-zone policies lock families out of opportunities and recommends policymakers, prosecutors, and district leaders rethink address-based school assignments and their enforcement. 

But even the most equitable approach to school assignments wouldn’t address the concentration of our nation’s highest-performing, most desirable schools in the wealthiest places — the reason so many parents would even consider skirting the law to attend a school outside their neighborhood.  

The underlying problem starts with housing segregation. Even as our nation has become more racially diverse, our communities have not. Most people live in racially and economically segregated neighborhoods, leaving families who are both low-income and Black or Hispanic the most isolated of all. This segregation — the product of decades of exclusionary zoning and other discriminatory practices and policies such as redlining — has created wide disparities in access to place-based opportunities, including thriving schools, well-paying jobs, quality health care, healthy foods, and well-maintained parks and recreation sites. 

Policymakers drew district lines on top of segregated housing patterns, deliberately reinforcing racial and economic isolation. In creating these boundaries, policymakers and local leaders have allowed wealthier and disproportionately white communities to concentrate resources, including property taxes, within district lines — and have allowed them to keep out families who cannot afford to live there. In 1974’s Milliken v. Bradley, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld this practice, barring federal courts from mandating integration across district lines. It effectively sanctioned segregation and incentivized districts to splinter off in order to consolidate resources or avoid integration efforts.  

Within districts, address-based attendance zones further sort students into schools closest to where they live. This usually leaves students in the poorest neighborhoods with no choice but to attend schools that are often under-resourced, underperforming, or struggling to maintain a stable, experienced teaching force. 

Yes, lawmakers should begin to dismantle these dividing lines. They can expand open-enrollment policies that allow students to attend any school in the district. And, they can expand inter-district transfer options that allow students to attend schools in neighboring communities.  

But what if, instead of asking students to travel to different neighborhoods or cities to access good schools, we made it possible for low-income families to live in high-opportunity neighborhoods — either by strengthening investments within low-income neighborhoods or by integrating exclusive neighborhoods? 

To achieve this, many housing experts and advocates are seeking to modernize the 55-year-old Fair Housing Act, which prohibits housing discrimination but also calls on local governments to “affirmatively further fair housing.” The rules governing this provision of the law have been caught on a political rollercoaster in recent years, as Obama-era rules were gutted by the Trump administration, then re-proposed by the Biden administration. The most recently proposed rules direct local governments to develop plans that assess equitable access to high-performing schools and eliminate discriminatory housing policies that lead to school segregation.  

While the federal rules are in limbo, local governments have been working to expand equitable access to affordable housing — a necessary step to integrating schools and breaking the link between housing wealth, school district funding, and school performance. Many states and cities are lifting restrictions on the development of multi-unit housing, eliminating lot-size requirements, legalizing accessory dwelling units, building more housing near public transit, and establishing inclusionary zoning policies to protect units for low-income residents in gentrifying neighborhoods. 

In some cases, municipal and education leaders have been working together. Some are working on the development of mixed-income housing projects — often pitched as affordable and available to teachers, but in practice more often marketed to classified staff (who also tend to be more racially diverse) and other public employees. The city of Welch in McDowell County, West Virginia, opened such a complex in 2022, as did Jefferson Union High School District in Daly City, California.  

Other cities are recognizing that the development of new affordable housing can help stabilize declining school enrollment and district finances, particularly in high-cost, urban areas. To accurately predict future enrollment, which declined substantially during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, San Francisco Unified School District studied the city’s housing plan to determine how many affordable family units it intends to build and used those projections to craft its facilities plan. 

We need to learn from these and many more examples of housing-education partnerships. Education advocates should continue pressing for more equity in school funding and reform of address-based school assignments. But there’s even more that advocates and policymakers can achieve if they focus on cross-sector solutions that dismantle entrenched housing segregation — so that no family faces the draconian prospect of prosecution or even jail time as the cost of securing the educational opportunities their children deserve. 

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