All the federal housing programs tend to place children in housing with access to lower-performing schools and schools with much higher poverty, said Philip Tegeler, the research action council's executive director. Only a quarter of eligible families receive housing assistance, he noted, and, "for those families lucky enough to get this assistance, we should be doing a better job of connecting these children to better life opportunities in the form of higher-performing schools."
While schools near all households in the study had, on average, just under 46 percent of students receiving federally subsidized free or reduced-price lunches, families receiving federal housing assistance ended up in far more concentrated poverty. The poverty rates at the schools children from those families could attend after moving into the subsidized housing ranged from 67 percent to 82 percent, depending on the housing program.
"To my mind, the study is highly significant," said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation based in New York City and Washington. He noted that it confirms prior research that found families using housing vouchers often ended up moving within close range of their old neighborhoods or "moving to a different neighborhood, but even though they physically moved, they kept their kids in the old school."
One program that attempts to bolster the connection between schooling and public-housing assistance is the Next Step housing-voucher program in Grand Junction, Colo. Its two-year, renewable vouchers, which can be used to pay rent in privately owned apartments, are dependent on the family meeting educational criteria, such as mandatory student attendance and parent participation in education classes.
In 2012, the sixth year of the program, 30 families are using the vouchers, and the 21,000-student Mesa County School District 51, which includes Grand Junction, has seen better attendance for the children from those families, according to Catherine Haller, the prevention-services coordinator of the district's Resources, Education, and Advocacy for Children Who Are Homeless. The reach program co-sponsors Next Step with the Grand Junction Housing Authority and other local agencies and nonprofit groups.
Part of the problem with traditional housing-support programs, Mr. Kahlenberg suggested, is that parents and children alike may feel out of place in a new school. "You can imagine this is not an easy thing for a low-income family to feel welcome and a part of more-affluent communities," he said.
Grand Junction's Next Step program includes tutoring for all children through AmeriCorps volunteers in their new schools. Each family also meets with a case manager to discuss problems related to settling in school or the community.
However, it's not clear whether families aren't comfortable moving away or simply don't have the information and access to do so, Ms. Ellen said.
Housing-authority agents often provide lists of landlords known to accept tenants receiving assistance, she said, but those can end up restricting families' search to lower-income neighborhoods.
In Grand Junction, Ms. Haller admits that options are often limited--even for families using the Next Step vouchers. Historically, the city has had a vacancy rate of less than 3 percent.
"Families are taking whatever they can get," Ms. Haller said, noting that nearly half the district's students live at or below the federal poverty rate. "It's not going to be about making educational decisions before [families] move."
She added, "After they are settled, we look at where are their needs best met."
Most education and housing officials go through a similar balancing act with families, according to Diana Bowman, the director of the National Center for Homeless Education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, part of the federal No Child Left Behind law, encourages districts to keep homeless and highly mobile students in their original schools as often as possible, even if a school in another area might be considered academically superior.
"It's not so much the conversation centering on can you send your child to a better school, but can we make your schooling more stable for your child," Ms. Bowman said.
"It's a tough call because we know sometimes the loss of stability is more than the educational disruption but also the loss of the peer group and the loss of adults who know the child," she said.
Some local housing programs, such as one in Montgomery County, Md., have had greater success improving students' access to high-quality schools by requiring all housing developments of 50 units or more to dedicate 15 percent of those units to affordable housing.
A 2010 study conducted by Heather L. Schwartz, a policy researcher at the Santa Monica, Calif.-based research group rand Corp., and published by the Century Foundation, tracked 850 children randomly assigned to these homes in Montgomery County, one of the wealthiest school districts in the country.
That study that found poor students who lived in and attended schools in higher-wealth neighborhoods performed higher in both mathematics and reading on standardized tests than similar students, also in subsidized housing, who attended schools with 20 percent or more disadvantaged students. Still, this sort of integrated housing does not produce enough homes for all families on housing assistance in most areas.
Mr. Kahlenberg argued that districts can take the lead in integrating housing by opening their enrollment to districtwide, as opposed to zoned, student-assignment policies.
"Many middle-class families chose to locate to an area based on the promise that their kids could go to high-quality, middle-class schools," Mr. Kahlenberg said. "Once you break the automatic tie between a residential area and a particular school, people are more willing to live in integrated neighborhoods. In school districts that have public school choice options, housing tends to be less segregated"--an assertion echoed by some studies.
Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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