Free education from housing | The Heritage Foundation


Virginia Walden Ford and her twin sister, Harrietta, were among the first 130 students to drop out of high school in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Ms. Ford recalls that her new high school had equipment she had “never dreamed of,” like a “huge library,” textbooks less than ten years old, and microscopes for everyone in the science lab.

This is the Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 which gave Ms. Ford and many others access to better educational opportunities. Yet educational opportunities remain uneven to this day, in part because of policies enacted in the 1930s by government agencies like Home Owners’ Loan Corp. and the Federal Housing Administration.

The HOLC and FHA began to condition access to federally guaranteed home loans on a neighborhood’s perceived economic health and used demographic factors such as race to make these decisions. The HOLC created 239 color-coded maps of US cities: desirable areas were shown in green and blue; yellow or red areas were rated as “dangerous” or “declining”. Families living in the red and yellow zones were less likely to be approved for the new HOLC loans, which offered low-interest loans with 15-year repayment schedules.

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In the 1960s, redlining was banned in the housing sector, but the effects persist in education. The attendance zone boundaries – used by school districts to assign students to public schools – often retain the shape of the redesigned 1930s boundaries.

For example, in Columbus, Ohio, students living east of I-71 are assigned to Como Elementary School, while children west of the freeway are assigned to the Clinton Elementary School. Como’s frequentation area includes areas designated in the 1930s as “definitely in decline”, while the surrounding areas of Clinton were characterized as “best” or “still desirable”.

As Tim DeRoche shows in his book “A Fine Line”, the difference between the two schools – only a mile apart – is striking. Only 44% of students enrolled in Como are proficient in reading, while 87% of Clintons are proficient.

The median value of homes in Hudson Street / Indianola Avenue – the neighborhood with the lowest residential value in the Clinton attendance area – is $ 227,979. In the Como school zone, it is $ 94,364. This school dynamic is reflected in districts across the country.

Many families buy access to high performing “public” schools by purchasing housing in the desired school area. A 2019 report from the Senate Joint Economic Committee found that the median property value of properties in the same postal code as high performing schools was four times the value of properties in postal codes with poor performing schools.

Access to a good public education should not be conditioned by the wealth and value of housing, especially since public schools in the same school district, regardless of the zone, are supported by the same tax base.

Why should families who support all district schools with their taxes be forced to send their children to geographically affected schools that function poorly or cannot meet their children’s learning needs?

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States and localities could remedy this broken system by removing the limits on frequentation zones. This would effectively create open enrollment, allowing families to enroll their children in any public school in their school district. In the event of over-enrollment in a particular school, a lottery will determine admission.

Additionally, protectionist school districts should not be able to opt out of open enrollment policies. It is a policy that Florida has successfully implemented that allows children to attend any school in the state’s 67 school districts.

These reforms, along with other options to expand the choice of private schools (such as education savings accounts), would end the monopoly on public schools. Education funds would follow students rather than institutions, allowing children to choose in learning environments that work for them.

It is time to dissociate education from housing. The assigned geographic footfall areas remain anachronistic barriers to opportunities and social capital. The education system of the future should allow students to attend the school of their choice, and not support particular schools at the expense of others.

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