The relationship between housing policy and school policy in affecting socioeconomic and racial integration is a topic I’ve previously covered. Housing segregation can cause school segregation. That’s pretty intuitive.
But there is another, less obvious, parallel relationship: school segregation can also exacerbate housing segregation.
At a recent conferenceon school and housing desegregation in the suburbs, researcher Douglas Ready from Teachers College at Columbia University presented striking research that shines light on the mechanisms of that latter interaction—when school segregation fuels housing segregation. Ready and a team of researchers from Teachers College examined links between school district demographics and home values in Nassau County, New York.
Looking to Suburbia
Conversations about educational and residential segregation often focus on central cities, but suburbs are an increasingly important part of the equation.
There are currently twice as many racially diverse neighborhoods in the suburbs as in central cities.In Nassau County, for example, school districts have seen dramatic changes in racial diversity over the past decade.
As the graphs below show, the number of predominantly white districts has shrunk dramatically.
Source: Amy Stuart Wells, Douglas Ready, Laruen Fox, Miya Warner, Allison Roda, Tameka Spence, Elizabeth Williams, & Allen Wright, Divided We Fail: The Story of Separate and Unequal Suburban Schools 60 Years after Brown v. Board of Education (The Center for Understanding Race and Education, Teachers college, Columbia University, May 2, 2014).
Nassau County is a fitting starting place for research on suburban segregation because it is the quintessential suburb—home to the archetypal planned community Levittown—and it is highly segregated.
Nassau County’s 220 square miles, containing 225,000 students, are split into 56 different school districts. Nationally, the probability that two students randomly selected from within a metropolitan area will attend different schools is 72 percent; in Nassau County and neighboring Suffolk County, that probability is 99 percent.
Within this highly fragmented school system, district demographics vary widely. For example, enrollment in Hempstead schools is 79 percent low-income, 57 percent Hispanic, 39 percent black, and 3 percent white, while schools in Garden City, an adjacent district, enroll a population that is just 1 percent low-income, 94 percent white, 3 percent Asian, 2 percent Hispanic, and 1 percent black.
Race and Property
Ready and his colleagues examined how growing demographic disparities among school districts in Nassau County affect home values.
The researchers looked at houses located on either side of district boundaries, allowing them to compare homes in the same neighborhood but in different school districts. They also controlled for differences in the size and quality of homes as well as for academic achievement and per-pupil spending in the school districts.
The study found that a 10 percent increase in the percentage of black and Hispanic students in a school district was associated with a 3 percent decrease in property value. Even when the homes are similar, the neighborhood is the same, and academics and spending in the school districts are comparable.
In practical terms, this means homes in school districts with low black and Hispanic enrollment are more expensive than those in districts with high black and Hispanic enrollment.
This school district–based pricing dynamic has enormous economic implications for residential segregation—more expensive homes are more likely to attract more-affluent families.
Cycle of Segregation
But it also has racial implications. Those more-affluent families are more likely to be whiteor Asian.
Unless the cycle is broken, schools and neighborhoods in Nassau County are likely to continue segregating toward opposite poles: one comprised mostly of wealthier, white and Asian families; and one mostly of poorer, black and Hispanic families. Research shows that increasingly unequal educational outcomes are likely to follow.
So how can we break this cycle of school and housing segregation?
The Teachers College researchers suggest one place to start is by bolstering the reputations of school districts with greater black and Hispanic enrollment.
School reputations are driven by a variety of factors, including demographics. Parents frequently view a school’s racial makeup as a proxy for its quality, even when there is no evidence to support that conclusion.
For many parents, the researchers note:
“…districts enrolling predominantly black and Hispanic students [are] automatically defined as ‘bad,’ and those in predominantly white and/or white and Asian communities [are] automatically defined as ‘good’—absent concrete data to support those distinctions.”
If community groups, the media, school officials, and policymakers celebrate the successes of schools enrolling predominantly black and Hispanic students, and look beyond narrow standardized test scores as measures of quality to do so, we might be able to bolster their reputations and attract homebuyers of many different races.
But we can also break the cycle by tackling school segregation head-on, creating education policies that promote integrated schools.
Nassau County is one of the more challenging places to create these policies because95 percent of school segregation in the county comes from differences among districts rather than within them. Effective integration strategies, therefore, would require districts to cooperate with each other.
That’s a difficult task—but it’s possible to accomplish.
Drawing from Magnets
Nassau BOCES (Board of Cooperative Educational Services), a state-created regional resource for all districts in the county, created interdistrict magnet schools that draw students from across the county and bring them into racially and economically integrated school settings.
Interdistrict magnet schools could be expanded, with schools located strategically in districts with high black and Hispanic enrollment, reserving a portion of seats for students from the local area.
The state could also offer special funding to expand overcrowded schools in predominantly white and Asian districts on the condition those schools reserve slots for students from neighboring districts with greater black and Hispanic enrollment.
Balancing student populations across Nassau County may cause some property values to rise and others to fall. There would no doubt be resistance from those in predominantly white and Asian districts who fear that bringing more black and Hispanic students into the district will “ding” their property values.
But at the end of the day, communities have to decide what matters more: guarding adults’ real estate interests, or providing high-quality integrated school environments for all students.
Research on integration and student outcomessuggests the latter option is the stronger long-term investment.