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Strategies for Overcoming Barriers to Neighborhoods and Schools of Opportunity

Seven young children and a teacher sit looking at a school workbook around a round table.A recent Insights report from HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research, “Breaking Down Barriers: Housing, Neighborhoods, and Schools of Opportunity,” describes the relationship between neighborhoods and schools and the implications for housing policy.

A recent Insights report from HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research, “Breaking Down Barriers: Housing, Neighborhoods, and Schools of Opportunity,” describes the relationship between neighborhoods and schools and the implications for housing policy.

One key connection between neighborhoods and schools is school composition: for the most part, where children live determines or strongly influences where they go to school. Another is education funding: in nearly all states, area schools are largely financed by property taxes. Moreover, the effects of neighborhoods and schools on children are intertwined, offering multiple, potentially complementary ways to support children’s development. For children who both live in distressed, underresourced neighborhoods and attend high-poverty, low-quality schools, however, this relationship puts them at a double disadvantage.

Research demonstrates that low-income children can benefit significantly when they live in safer, lower-poverty neighborhoods and higher-quality, lower-poverty schools. A study of low-income children in Montgomery County, Maryland, by Heather Schwartz found that after seven years, children who moved to attend lower-poverty schools cut the math achievement gap with their higher-income peers in half; the comparison group at higher-poverty schools showed no relative improvement. New research by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence F. Katz using data from HUD’s Moving to Opportunity program also shows that low-income children who moved from high-poverty neighborhoods to low-poverty areas had much better educational outcomes and earnings at adults.

Federal, state, and local organizations have demonstrated promising housing-education strategies to support children where they already live and through opportunity moves. Policies and programs that reflect the relationship between neighborhoods and schools, as well as partnerships between housing and education organizations, can help all children access high-quality neighborhoods and schools.

Barriers to Neighborhoods and Schools of Opportunity

These strategies address a number of systemic barriers that affect families’ access to neighborhoods and schools that promote children’s development. One is the relationship between where children live and go to school. Higher-income communities often restrict the construction of affordable housing, effectively excluding low-income families from local schools. There is a reciprocal and cyclical relationship between school and housing segregation. Schools and their attendance zones often define neighborhoods, and both school and school district boundaries are sometimes drawn to include or exclude particular communities. Moreover, evidence shows that housing prices tend to reflect the performance and demographics of local schools. Jonathan Rothwell of the Brookings Institute estimates that metropolitan areas that eliminate exclusionary zoning could lower their test score gaps by 4 to 7 percent as low-income students gain access to higher-quality schools.

Beyond the availability of affordable housing, low-income families and people of color often lack the opportunity to find and secure housing in safe neighborhoods near high-quality schools. Low-income families often move with very little lead time and can be restricted in their search for new housing by lack of access to transportation, childcare, and support networks. They frequently lack key information on school options, and it can be difficult to navigate school choice systems or identify the school that is the best fit for their children. Families with housing choice vouchers often do not use them in neighborhoods with access to high-quality schools because they are unable to find units with allowable rents in these areas, face logistical barriers to using their vouchers in high-opportunity neighborhoods, or struggle to afford moving costs.

Children who live in disinvested, high-poverty neighborhoods usually also attend high-poverty schools. High-poverty schools face substantial barriers to success. For example, high-poverty schools struggle to attract and retain high-quality, experienced teachers. Classrooms in higher-poverty schools tend to be more difficult to manage because children from low-income households are more likely to have behavior and attention problems. Decades of research have demonstrated that schools’ concentration of poverty and disadvantage, distinct from children’s own socioeconomic status, powerfully predicts school performance. Children who both are low-income and attend a high-poverty school — that is, a school with a high proportion of low-income students — are dually disadvantaged.

Although school choice programs can help children in distressed areas access better schools, these programs can actually increase school segregation if districts’ choice programs do not maintain racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic balance between schools. Low-income families are often less likely to move to higher-performing schools, as they are often less knowledgeable about their children’s school options or struggle to transport their children to a school farther from home—many districts do not provide free transportation for children who participate in school choice. As a result, housing policy is a key complement to school choice.

Emerging Strategies

As Breaking Down Barriers describes, several emerging strategies could help children access both neighborhoods and schools of opportunity. Coordinated planning among school, housing, and transportation agencies could serve as a foundation. A growing number of public housing agencies and schools have established place-based housing-education partnerships, which can support low-income students and school improvement strategies. Communities, for example, can pair magnet schools with neighborhood investments to allow children to access low-poverty, high-quality schools in revitalizing areas. Affordable housing programs can encourage development near high-quality schools and in safe, low-poverty neighborhoods. Mobility programs, especially those operated at a regional level, can help families learn about their housing options, make successful moves, and thrive in the long term. At all levels, these strategies can support children’s development both by enabling families to make opportunity moves and by investing in places where children already live and go to school.