It's a truism that families vote for better schools with their feet, but new research suggests that the most vulnerable and highly mobile families are also those least likely to be able to make educational opportunity a priority when deciding on housing.
Families in the four largest federal programs to subsidize housing for those in poverty do not end up with better access to high-quality schools than other low-income parents, particularly if they are black or Hispanic. That's the conclusion of the latest in a series of studies on the intersection of federal housing and education policies by the Washington-based Poverty and Race Research Action Council.
Federal housing programs are not designed to improve students' academic outcomes directly, though some, like housing vouchers, are designed in part to give parents a way to move children to better schools and neighborhoods. However, officials do recognize the connection between housing and educational decisions for families. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development this year started requiring better coordination between school districts and local housing authorities as a condition for its $1.61 billion competitive Continuum of Care program.
The study released last month by the independent research and advocacy group echoes what many who work with homeless and highly mobile families see on the ground: Giving families financial support for new homes isn't enough. Rather, the researchers and practitioners say, these families need more support to find homes with access to good schools, and more guidance to enroll their children in the most appropriate school regardless of where they live.
Authors Ingrid Gould Ellen, a public-policy and urban-planning professor at New York University, and Keren Mertens Horn, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Boston, looked at families with children across the country who are using the four most common forms of housing assistance, including approximately:
--360,000 families who live in free- or reduced-rent public housing built and run by local governments;
--400,000 who live in privately owned homes subsidized by the Project-based Section 8 program;
--900,000 families living in housing rented below the market rate because the building developers receive low-income-housing tax credits; and,
--1.2 million families, including 2.5 million children, who use housing-choice vouchers intended in part to help poor parents move their children to a community--and school--of their choice, by subsidizing payments for families renting privately owned apartments in higher-priced areas.
The researchers rated the quality of schools nearest to each family's home based on state rankings, as measured by students' scores on state mathematics and language arts tests, and documented the percentages of poor and minority students attending those schools.
Nationwide, the average "proficiency percentile ranking" in math and literacy for schools serving all households in the study was 53, the researchers found. But the rankings were much lower for families using housing assistance: 19 out of 100 for those in public housing; 26 for those using housing-choice vouchers; and 28 for those in Section 8 housing. Only housing tax credits, which were considered a housing program for the purposes of the study, brought families to a school deemed slightly above average for all poor families, a state ranking of 31 versus 30 for schools attended by other poor students.
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