Progressive Voices

Punishing kids for their parents’ sins?

Location! Location! Location! One of the first rules of creating a successful business is ensuring that it is located in the proper place. While it is, for many reasons, unwise to compare schools to private businesses, location can also mean a tremendous amount in the quality of education a student receives.

The renewed “neighborhood schools” movement is troubling. In the 1970s, the “freedom of choice” movement was a backlash to Brown v. Board of Education and integration of schools. In those years, the choice movement was often driven by racial prejudice. This new movement is wrapped in the guise of both protecting children from onerous travel and real estate values.

What the neighborhood schools movement does not take into account or willfully avoids is the issue of segregated housing patterns. There are obviously wealthier areas of the state than others. There are also obviously wealthier areas within various school districts. While federal Title I money provides a supplement for poor schools and state funding aids low-wealth districts and disadvantaged students, they do not fill the gap.

As a practical matter, given the housing patterns in North Carolina, a “neighborhood schools” approach basically tells children that because their parents are poor, they are not worthy of a high quality education. Because of the way the state funds schools, wealthier districts get more resources and more experienced teachers. And schools with more resources generally have higher success – at least with respect to standardized test scores.

Recent studies show that integrated schools narrow the racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps. Last year, a Century Foundation report entitled “Housing Policy is School Policy” studied an area of Montgomery County, Maryland which uses “inclusionary zoning.” Inclusionary zoning is a system that helps assure that people of different income levels reside in the same neighborhood. The Century Foundation reported that the achievement gap is narrowed in the schools when poorer students learn with their more affluent peers.

A report released by the Brookings Institution also illustrates the importance of integrated housing. The report shows that where there is integrated housing and integrated schools, the achievement gap narrows. The report also studied the Raleigh-Cary area in North Carolina. It found that even where there is not integrated housing, the achievement gap narrows when there is a concerted effort to integrate the schools such as the Wake County assignment policy that promoted socioeconomic integration. The Raleigh-Cary achievement gap is likely to be worse in areas where there are “financial and regulatory barriers” to integration. Sadly, of course, Wake County currently has a confusing school assignment policy, which does not seem to have achievement of low-income students as a high priority.

The bottom line from these studies is clear: If students can only go to school where they live, their access to opportunities is diminished. Defenders of the “neighborhood schools” approach argue that if people are able to afford property in affluent areas and pay more in property taxes they are entitled to benefit and send their children to the high quality schools. The implication of such an argument however, is that it’s “tough luck” for the children who through no fault of their own live in poverty or in areas their parents can afford.

This simply cannot be a fundamental principle of our public education system. Education is not supposed to be just for the affluent; it exists to support the common good.

A child should not be foreclosed from opportunities because they live in a depressed area of foreclosed homes. Children living in public housing should not suffer poor public schools. Poverty is not a choice even though some see it as an aspect of the sin of sloth. Even if one believes the ridiculous proposition that people are responsible for their own poverty, they surely cannot believe the children should also suffer.

North Carolina counties should consider inclusionary zoning to encourage better neighborhoods and more diverse and successful schools. School districts in the state should also consider assignment policies that create diverse schools, which the research shows lead to high quality schools.

To punish children because of their parents’ poverty is only punishing the entire state. Children should not suffer because of supposed “sins of their father.” The truth is that if we only allow students access to great schools because of their zip code, our entire state will suffer. That, indeed, would be a sin.

Christopher Hill is the Director of the Education and Law Project at the North Carolina Justice Center.