It’s Time to Break the Link Between Housing and Education

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Disparate learning losses during the pandemic are highlighting the ongoing impact of segregation in America’s schools. Black students are twice as likely to have had no contact with a teacher, and minority students are falling months behind their peers in reading. It’s time to ask why schools remain more segregated today despite six decades of promises to integrate them. 

When you look into how our education system assigns students to schools, the cause of persistent school segregation becomes obvious: We have institutionally linked housing — which was intentionally and explicitly segregated through government policy during much of the twentieth century — to education, our primary mechanism for promoting equality of opportunity and economic mobility.

It’s time to break the link between housing and education by separating school assignments from ZIP codes.

A new report from the Urban Institute calls attention to the unseen lines that determine educational opportunity by examining the “microgeography of inequality of education.” In Atlanta, over 1,000 attendance boundaries uphold the city’s long legacy of segregation. This case study represents the nationwide practice of assigning children to schools based on their ZIP code, which institutionally links student demographics to educational opportunity. And because Black families were denied access to supportive, wealth-building housing programs from the 1930s to the 1960s, they often lack the financial power to seek alternatives.

Housing in America has been institutionally segregated not only by personal bigotry but also by explicit government policy. During the Great Depression, the Federal Housing Administration created a program that helped struggling families stay in their homes by purchasing mortgages from lenders and offering families more favorable payment terms. But this program was not available to all struggling families. Under the pretense of minimizing the government’s exposure to risk, the FHA would offer much higher interest rates or flat out deny this assistance to families living in majority Black areas by zoning them as “hazardous” even though racial wealth and income gaps were much less pronounced at the time.

Despite a half-century government effort to reverse the sins of the past, today, 74% of the neighborhoods zoned as hazardous by the FHA in the 1930s remain low-to-moderate income; 64% of these neighborhoods are still majority people of color. And because housing determines school assignment, the long-term effects of these policies are ingrained in the education system — you can see the legacy of the redlining maps in school attendance zone maps of today.

In addition to racially profiling neighborhoods, the FHA denied Black families access to subsidized mortgage programs in the newly developed suburbs. These suburbs were explicitly segregated, often with “exclusionary covenants” that legally prohibited selling or renting homes to Black families. White families left public housing projects in favor of subsidized homeownership, while Black families were stranded in cities as the best jobs migrated to the suburbs. When the GI Bill created a subsidized mortgage program to help World War II veterans get into homes, administrators often denied services to Black veterans.

The massive racial wealth gap that directly resulted from these racist housing policies restricts many Black families’ access to the school that best suits their child’s needs. If wealthy families are unsatisfied with the education their residentially assigned school delivers, they have the resources to move to a different attendance zone or pay private school tuition. But we deny this autonomy to families with fewer resources by refusing to reform school assignment mechanisms to take into consideration their unique needs and preferences. Any change that continues to deny Black families equal decision rights and financial power over their child’s education will be a superficial political victory rather than a lasting change.

But there is hope. Some cities and states have begun working to decouple housing and school assignments. In December, San Francisco took meaningful steps toward centering school assignments around families by allowing them to apply to roughly a dozen nearby public schools in their area rather than restricting assignment to one. If a school receives more applications than open seats, students will be selected through a random lottery. So all students have an equal chance of admission no matter their family background.

Arizona takes an alternative approach by expanding access to public schools not only through open enrollment but also through expansive charter school networks and private scholarship programs. The state recently expanded its education savings account program to allow all students who attend a Title I school to use 90% of their allocated state funding to pay for private school tuition. This change provides underserved families in Arizona meaningful access to new education options and presents an open admissions model for other states to follow.

Putting funding directly into the hands of families expands access to education options for those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford them. Likewise, instituting more open admissions will move the U.S. approach to education one step closer to equity in access to learning options. In doing so, we can begin to make amends for policies that close families off from educational opportunities.

If we rely on a student’s address to determine access to education, we are allowing the bigoted history of housing in our country to define that student’s future. Assignment systems simply cannot operate this way if we are serious about bridging the racial opportunity gap. We must deliver meaningful improvements in access to high-quality education. It’s time to stop institutionally denying Black families a voice in where and how their children are educated.

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