Before the real estate bubble burst, there was an emerging literature on the link between government regulation of housing and home prices. Heightened zoning restrictions, the conclusions went, drove up the cost of housing. Now the Brookings Institution has added something new to consider: Zoning regulations are segregating cities by income and race and leaving quality schools available to mostly higher income families.

Housing costs are 2.4 times greater near a better performing school.

After surveying 100 metropolitan areas, Brookings analyst Jonathan Rothwell found that housing costs are 2.4 times greater near a better performing school, as judged by state test scores, than near a lower performing school. Zoning, Rothwell told Education Week, “is an underlying problem.”  Exclusionary zoning has priced lower income families out of high-flying schools in higher-flying neighborhoods where population density is low by government design and where fewer people own larger houses and more acres of land.

By loosening or even eliminating restrictive zoning, cities may see housing cost gaps narrow by as much as 63 percentage points and see school achievement gaps narrow as a result, Rothwell writes.

Naturally, Rothwell has an affinity for school choice, including district choice plans, charter schools, and school vouchers, because the practice helps to neutralize the effects of zoning. It’s no surprise that Fort Myers, Florida, shows some of the lowest test score gaps between lower and higher income students in the Brookings report. The Lee County school district has a more robust district choice policy, implemented largely to settle a desegregation lawsuit. But whatever the motivation, the policy highlights what should be obvious: Districts with strict student assignment plans that leave little or no room for school choice only intensify the effects brought on by zoning as detailed by Brookings.

Rothwell is careful not to focus entirely on choice as a solution. It’s better that school districts work with local governments to establish effective housing and education policy, he says. But it’s important to note, if Rothwell doesn’t, that more and more districts are restricting school choice as a way to cut down on costs. They do this in many ways, but more are drawing tighter attendance zones around specialty schools, like magnets, or by denying bus service to these schools. That’s a poor way to save money. And if Rothwell teaches us anything, it’s that quality choices are still largely available only to those who can afford them. 

Adam Emerson is the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s school choice czar, directing the Institute’s policy program on parental choice and editing the Choice Words blog. He coordinates the Institute’s school choice-related research projects, policy analyses and commentaries on issues that include charter schools and public school choice along with school vouchers, homeschooling and digital learning. Previously…

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