Integrating Schools Is a Matter of Housing Policy

Inclusionary zoning and economic integration in suburban neighborhoods not only reduces concentration of poverty, it directly improves low-income children’s academic achievement. 

The suburbs still lead cities in population growth, but in the latest sign of ongoing racial and economic diversification of suburbs, whites now make up only a fifth of that growth. According to a recent New York Times report, the shift in jobs to suburban centers has influenced a shift in immigrants’ moves from urban to suburban centers.

Maryland’s Montgomery County in suburban Washington, D.C., was among the first to experience these trends. Forty years ago, it was one of the earliest suburbs in the United States to host more jobs than residences. Today about one-third of Montgomery County residents are foreign-born, which is more than double the national rate. Yet the county remains one of the top ten wealthiest counties in the country (according to median household income), a position it has enjoyed since the suburb’s founding in the 1950s.

Montgomery County is exceptional in a number of respects, but its circumstances 40 years ago forecast the economic conditions a growing number of high-cost, high-tech suburbs have come to experience. Inclusionary housing has helped it navigate these changes without creating pockets of high poverty and low educational achievement, an accomplishment other rapidly changing suburbs might want to take note of.

Montgomery County’s school district, which is the 12th largest in the United States, is now minority white (37 percent of students) and has a national reputation for excellence. About 90 percent of its pupils graduate from high school, two-thirds of its high school students take at least one Advanced Placement course, and the average SAT score in the district greatly exceeds the national average.

In 1974, Montgomery County adopted an inclusionary zoning policy that has had the effect of integrating very low-income households into low-poverty neighborhoods. Although the county’s inclusionary zoning policy occurs outside the school walls, it has had a powerful educational impact, even as measured by the most demanding, but perhaps most meaningful test: highly disadvantaged children with access to the district’s lowest-poverty neighborhoods and schools begin to catch up to their non-poor, high-performing peers throughout elementary school, while similar disadvantaged children without such access do not.

Montgomery County’s experience with economically integrative housing should speak to the concerns of at least four audiences: high-cost suburbs that need to attract lower-income workers into their jurisdiction, localities with low but increasing rates of poverty, housing mobility counselors for tenant-based assistance programs, and school districts seeking to mitigate school segregation.

Heather Schwartz is an associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation in New Orleans. She currently co-leads a MacArthur Foundation-funded study of inclusionary zoning and schools in 10 cities.


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