Knowledge Exchange Recap: The Learning Gap

Each month we’re reporting out on our Knowledge Exchanges, held as part of our Visiting Fellowship in Urban Poverty with Loyola University of Chicago’s Center on Urban Research and Learning (CURL).

In April we had two discussions, the first of which was on “The Learning Gap: Connections between Housing Reform and Education Reform” and was lead by Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute.

The recap below of the session’s conversation is provided courtesy of our Visiting Fellow.

Richard Rothstein

Richard Rothstein argues that the racial achievement gap has more to do with the social and economic conditions of the student’s community than with the quality of the school itself. There are data to support this conclusion dating back to the 1966 Coleman Report, which found that school achievement gaps were largely attributable to out of school factors, such as living in a poor neighborhood.

For example, asthma is the primary cause of school absences, and children living in poor neighborhoods are four times more likely to have asthma. Health factors, financial insecurity, a lack of public services and increased rates of community violence have a cumulative impact on children’s learning. However, these environmental factors are largely ignored by educational policies (such as Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind) that seek to improve academic performance through school reform.

Federal, state and local policies dating back to the New Deal have created segregated and unequal neighborhoods, and until these inequalities are addressed it is unlikely that we will close the achievement gap. The American public has very little awareness of how these inequalities were created—most assume that residential segregation is “de facto,” or the result of personal preferences, market forces, and socioeconomic differences. Therefore, in order to address educational inequalities, there is a need to re-educate the public on how these inequities were developed, and create policies that can remediate the negative impacts of racial segregation and urban disinvestment.

“Nationwide metropolitan residential racial segregation today results largely from the ongoing effects of racially explicit government policies, quite similar to Jim Crow in the U.S. South and apartheid in South Africa. These government policies, although no longer explicit, had and continue to have enduring effects. Policies of de jure residential segregation have been well-documented but largely forgotten, including by many contemporary advocates of racial equality.”

-Richard Rothstein, “Race Remains the American Dilemma,” The Dream Revisited: A Discussion of Economic Segregation in Schools hosted by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University, March 10, 2014.

Discussion Summary

If we can successfully re-educate the public on the structural causes of inequality, what steps can we take to improve educational outcomes?

Educational outcomes are closely tied to neighborhood outcomes; therefore, housing policy is also educational policy. There is a provision of the 1968 Fair Housing Act which states that municipalities must “affirmatively further fair housing” in order to receive federal funds. In the 1960’s, HUD attempted to enforce this provision by denying funds to suburban communities that implemented exclusionary zoning and discriminatory housing practices. Ultimately, there was enough political backlash to make enforcement of this provision difficult. However some version of enforcement is under consideration by the Obama administration. There is also the possibility of restricting the mortgage interest deduction to homes located in municipalities that are in compliance with this provision.

Second, the Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program can be an effective tool, but it is underfunded, and many landlords discriminate against voucher holders. In order for the HCV program to be more effective, voucher holders require protection from discrimination.

Third, inclusionary zoning holds promise, but in many municipalities, the number of affordable units produced does not meet the affordable housing need. Montgomery County’s inclusionary housing program has been very successful because the county government has purchased a significant number of units which are dedicated to public housing and scattered throughout the municipality. There is a growing body of research which suggests that the education achievement gap in Montgomery County is shrinking due to these housing policies.

Fourth, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program could be more equitably distributed. Currently, LIHTC units are concentrated in low income neighborhoods, partially due to the NIMBYism that affordable housing developers encounter in upper income areas.

These proposals are promising, but they also require a great deal of political support. Legal action is not enough— it needs to be coupled with the development of political will. If these efforts do not coincide, there are many barriers to implementation and legal victories are often side tracked. The second key challenge is the fragmentation of regional government—in the Chicago area there are more than 200 municipalities.

While today’s inequalities are the result of racial segregation and urban disinvestment, is integration the best way to redress these inequalities?

Several members of the group discussed the benefits and potential draw backs of mobility programs. For example, if mobility programs were implemented at a greater scale, what would happen to poor communities as residents move out? Is it possible that mobility programs could have unintended, negative consequences, such as weakening existing organizations and institutions within the Black community? Furthermore, it may be less disruptive to improve the educational outcomes of poor children by improving current neighborhoods, and strengthening existing institutions. There has been an ongoing debate between advocates of community based vs. mobility based approaches. The group discussed whether it may be time to develop a multi- faceted anti-poverty strategy that incorporates both strategies.

“Although race and poverty are correlated, they remain quite different, both in degree and in geographic distribution. As Paul Jargowsky shows (see, for example, his recent Century Foundation report, Concentration of Poverty in the New Millennium), black poverty is more concentrated than white poverty: in 2011, seven percent of poor whites lived in high poverty neighborhoods, while a breathtaking 23 percent of poor blacks lived in such neighborhoods.”

-Richard Rothstein, “Race Remains the American Dilemma,” The Dream Revisited: A Discussion of Economic Segregation in Schools hosted by the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University, March 10, 2014.

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