Category Archives: Equity

Want More Equitable Schools? Look at Housing and District Boundary Policies.

In a new report, Alex Spurrier, Sara Hodges, and I outline the very real impact of policy decisions across housing, funding, and education, made at all levels of government. 

In Priced Out of Public Schools: District Lines, Housing Access, and Inequitable Educational Options, how district boundaries are drawn and where accessible housing is located means that low-income families are priced out of some school districts and segregated from more affluent families. This isn’t only exclusion from certain public schools, but also exclusion from academic opportunities (such as magnet schools or Advanced Placement courses) and extracurricular activities. 

In looking at the 200 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, we found nearly 500 “barrier borders” across the country that have deep funding implications:

  • 12.8 million students live in districts with a high concentration of low-income housing and generate $6,355 per-pupil less in school funding from local, state, and federal sources than their affluent peers in districts with inaccessible housing.
  • Districts with inaccessible housing have an average of $4,664 more per-pupil than the “average” district, while districts with accessible housing have $1,691 less per-pupil than the “average” district.

This work joins a cadre of important studies and news media coverage on how seemingly random boundaries and borders are actually deliberate policy decisions. (Check out the Urban Institute’s latest study on within-district attendance boundaries and race, as well as the archives from EdBuild.)

Simply put, this is an intentional policy decision — sometimes made decades ago, but not always. We can also intentionally address it.

If we want equitable schools, I’ve long argued for making funding more equitable

The radical, but swift policy solution would be to decouple the real estate market from school funding, allowing local property taxes to play a minimal role in funding schools (if at all). Instead, states could create a state-funded education system (essentially replacing local funding) and distribute that funding equitably and based on student needs. 

Alternatively, if the policy landscape makes replacing local property taxes nearly impossible, states could seriously invest their dollars in leveling the playing field so that communities with higher property values do not continue to systematically disadvantage lower-income communities. 

There are also ways to fiddle around the ends if using property taxes for school funding continues, including the state limiting how much property taxes can be used locally and redistributing any amounts over the cap.

But changing funding isn’t the only avenue to pursue. States and locales could simply eliminate the mismatch between school district boundaries and city or county limits. It’s hard to imagine a rationale for one city, such as greater Chicago, to have 353 districts (and 45 barrier borders). Which also makes it hard to imagine what the rationale of these policies might be, if not the resulting exclusion of some families from some schools and resources. States with the highest number of school districts also tend to have the greatest number of barrier borders: eight of the 10 states that account for 70% of the nation’s barrier borders also rank in the top 10 states for highest number of school districts. Some metropolitan areas may be too big to have one mega-school district, but drawing boundary lines to explicitly divide communities based on income is inequitable and wrong.

Finally, there is a role that the federal government can play, and that’s in housing policy. At a baseline, there should be more low-income housing in more communities. The reality is that the need for low-income housing far outpaces the supply of affordable options, and sequestering low-income families together (particularly when physically far from important educational and other resources) is inequitable.

With the infusion of funds from the federal government, now is the time to reexamine and redraw what may seem like random funding, housing, and boundary decisions that are far from random. They are indeed intentional. The question is, can we be intentional about creating a more equitable landscape?

Priced Out of Public Schools: District Lines, Housing Access, and Inequitable Educational Options is part of an ongoing Bellwether examination of how finance and inequity in education shortchange millions of students and families.

 

How Inequities in Housing Affect Education — and Vice Versa

Photo courtesy of cottonbro for Pexels

As part of the Priced Out of Public Schools: District Lines, Housing Access, and Inequitable Educational Options release, Bellwether asked housing expert Malcom Glenn to weigh in on how finance and inequity in education and housing shortchange millions of students and families across the country.

There’s an old adage in politics, repeated in some form by everyone from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Sen. Tim Scott to President Barack Obama: a person’s ZIP code should not determine their destiny. More often than not, the two factors at the intersection of ZIP codes and social determinants are fair housing and education. Policymakers tend to think of these as separate issues and address them in silos. But from an equity perspective, rarely do you find two issues as inextricably linked — or as generationally interrelated — as housing and education.

Housing is the foundation for much of what comes after in a person’s life — the Urban Institute called it “the first rung on the ladder to economic opportunity,” and the absence of stable housing has significant negative impacts on health outcomes, family well-being, and overall quality of life.

Discrepancies in quality related to both housing and education are unfortunately the result of intentional decisions: just a few of the countless outgrowths of America’s history of racial discrimination. Not all of them show up in concrete, government-backed policies. As author Richard Rothstein writes, much of these discriminatory practices amounted to de facto segregation, where private actors were free to discriminate without any engagement from policymakers. That began a cycle that persists today.

From real estate agents unwilling to sell homes to people of color to discrimination in appraisals to mortgage lenders offering significantly higher interest rates to prospective Black borrowers, racist policies depressed Black wealth creation for generations. As white families in previously more racially diverse neighborhoods were able to favorably engage in the house-buying market, they moved elsewhere, and Black residents maintained significantly less net worth than their white counterparts. Over time, key pieces of infrastructure were at best, neglected, and at worst, purposefully used to further separate, segregate, and subjugate Black families and neighborhoods.

As property values dropped, there was less tax revenue to help fund investment in improving public school quality, widening the gap between high- and low-quality schools. As students at underfunded schools continued to see lower educational attainment, it deterred families from moving to those neighborhoods and further exacerbated plummeting property values in these communities. Without significant growth in property values, families remained stuck in a cycle of limited housing options resulting in limited educational options — the limits of which were passed on from generation to generation. In the past decade, housing costs near high-performing K-12 public schools were more than twice as much as costs near low-scoring public schools, according to a 2012 Brookings Institution report.

Data from recent years shows the results of more than a half-century of policies, neglect, and cyclical marginalization, and it starts at the very beginning of a child’s educational journey and continues as long as they’re in school. According to a 2016 report, there’s an association between lower kindergarten readiness scores and “cumulative exposure to poor-quality housing and disadvantaged neighborhoods.” 

Research from that same year also found that household crowding — defined as having more people living in a home than there are rooms — has a direct impact on educational attainment, particularly during a student’s high school years. And passing rates in virtually every subject are lower for children experiencing homelessness than children in stable housing situations. It’s not just the students who suffer from housing difficulties, either. Increases in teacher pay have been outpaced by rising home prices, making many teachers significantly more likely to depart their jobs in high-cost school districts within just two years. 

Fixing this problem requires addressing the fundamentally interrelated aspects of fair housing and education. Policymakers, education advocates, families, and more should consider a range of solutions, including the following.

It’s these types of efforts that will make housing more equitable in its own right, while importantly creating better educational attainment. And it speaks to a philosophical shift that can and should occur, with a clear recognition of the impact of quality housing policy on good education policy. Too often, a person’s ZIP code still does determine their destiny. It’s only by unraveling the inequitable policies of the past and leveraging smart policies of today that we can provide better futures for America’s schoolchildren.

Malcom Glenn is a fellow at New America’s Future of Land and Housing Program and the director of public affairs at Better, a platform that makes homeownership easier and more accessible. He’s a former national director of communications at the American Federation for Children

Designing From the Margins Toolkit: Three Ways to Solve Problems Facing Young People

Young people facing disruptions to their education need support and guidance to meet their goals. But too often, the systems meant to support young people at the toughest moments of their lives end up frustrating and burdening them as they navigate a complex bureaucracy. Leaders working within these systems can see the challenges young people face, but they get stuck, because creating change within and across large organizations is difficult.   

A different approach to problem solving can help communities get unstuck within and across schools, nonprofits, and other child-serving organizations. This week, Bellwether released Designing From the Margins: Tools and Examples for Practitioners to Address Fragmentation and Build Equity Into Systems Design. The downloadable toolkit draws on Design Methods for Education Policy and is aligned with our Continuous Improvement in Schools Workbook, but is created specifically for local leaders who might be new to tackling human-centered design from start to finish. It includes tangible examples and facilitation strategies for collaborative problem-solving processes based on our work with communities across the country. 

Designing From the Margins centers young people and families with the most serious and concentrated needs to make inclusive solutions for everyone. By taking this approach, problem solvers focus on equity from the start, and focus on the voices and perspectives of those experiencing problems directly. 

Here are three ways schools, foster care systems, homeless shelters, and health care providers, among others, can use the toolkit:

1. Engage Young People and Families in Identifying Problems

What problems need solving right now? In order to answer this question, you should go to the people experiencing issues directly. This toolkit focuses on improving systems serving young people. In our work, we used techniques like empathy interviews to hear from young people about their experiences and unmet needs. We prioritized young people with severe disruptions in their lives and education, such as incarceration or homelessness, in order to hear how systems served (or failed) those with the greatest needs. The toolkit can help you create a plan to collect these perspectives and reflect on them in a structured and coherent way. 

2. Structure a Collaborative Problem-Solving Process

Organizations serving young people often operate under great stress and uncertainty. This can make collaboration difficult. For example, a leader of a community nonprofit might consider another organization to be a competitor for funding or enrollment, rather than a potential collaborator serving overlapping groups of young people and families. The Designing From the Margins Toolkit gives tangible examples of ways to build a productive, cross-organizational working group that centers on the needs of young people, which includes building relationships among participants who might not work together frequently. 

3. Plan for Better Implementation Through Monitoring and Continuous Improvement 

Even great plans can fall victim to incomplete or insufficient implementation. The problem-solving cycle described in Designing From the Margins includes an emphasis on concrete implementation plans, with clear metrics and owners each step of the way, along with a framework for implementing continuous improvement cycles of monitoring and evaluation once solutions are put in place. 

Click here to read and download Bellwether’s Designing From the Margins Toolkit, and visit Bellwether’s Lost by Design website to learn more.

Back to School Leader Q&A: Natalie McCabe Zwerger and Cristher S. Estrada-Peréz on Re-Centering Race and Equity in Education

As the 2021-22 school year begins across the country, we asked a few education leaders to share their insights on where we’ve been, where we’re going, and what their organizations are doing to weather the COVID-19 pandemic and serve students. Today’s post concludes a three-part Q&A series exploring the highs and lows of the past 18 months through the lens of dynamic education leaders.

RE-Center: Race & Equity in Education* is a Connecticut-based nonprofit that activates youth and adults to drive transformative change towards racially just schools and communities. In July 2021, Natalie McCabe Zwerger joined the organization as its new executive director after spending more than two decades as an educator and attorney, most recently serving as director of the center for strategic solutions at New York University’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Her colleague, Cristher S. Estrada-Peréz, has been with RE-Center since 2016 and is one of the lead evaluators on its Equity-Informed School Climate Assessment team. 

I had a wide-ranging discussion over Zoom recently with McCabe Zwerger and Estrada-Peréz about how RE-Center has shown up during the pandemic, how COVID-19 made their team pivot and respond to community needs, and more. 

Melissa Steel King:
Tell me a little bit about RE-Center’s work and your roles within the organization. Who does RE-Center primarily serve?

Natalie McCabe Zwerger:
I have a unique background as a longtime educator and attorney. I was most recently with NYU’s race and equity center and often apply a civil rights lawyer lens to my daily work. The work of RE-Center is steeped in transformative change to create, foster, and maintain more equitable schools. It’s a profound mission that drew me to join the organization. 

The bulk of RE-Center’s work is in the service of children in systems led by adults. Young people can’t bear the load of transforming spaces that harm them. We focus on Black and Indegenous children of color who learn in systems led by predominantly white educators in Connecticut. We focus on supporting those educators through professional development to change the way they teach and relate to students of color who don’t look like them. 

We also work in evaluation, which enables us to make sure we have our receipts and can measure and scale impact. We want young people to feel spaces shift to be more welcoming and affirming, and to serve them in the ways they’re entitled to be served. RE-Center’s work with teachers, leaders, board members, community partners, families, and young people brings this mission into the everyday.

Cristher S. Estrada-Peréz:
I have a background in evaluation and in decolonizing work grounded in liberation and environmental justice. I joined RE-Center in 2016, initially as a volunteer and am now its research and program evaluation manager. There’s a little sprinkle of me throughout the organization’s work, to be honest, in everything from evaluation processes and facilitation to thought partnership and communications. 

MSK:
Do you work with cohorts of students in addition to your focus on teachers and school leaders?

CEP:
Both. It’s extremely important for us to not just have theoretical applications and observations but to be in community and relationship with young people, listening to and learning from them. We recently convened a quarantine series and pivoted during COVID-19 to focus on hearing from young people about their pandemic experiences, especially students of color who may be at the receiving end of systems but don’t have power over things like teacher hiring. RE-Center’s partnerships with students are grounded in leveraging our voice to build awareness among critically conscious adults to support those students.

MSK:
How has RE-Center shown up in the past 2020-21 school year? What went well, what was hard, and how did you approach the work?

NMZ:
It’s often said that you can’t do this kind of relational work through a screen and that you need to be in the same room to make a difference. The pandemic forced us to do our own organizational reflection, pausing to lean into the discomfort of distance to further collective learning. We shifted and pivoted because that’s what needed to happen. Today, it feels like we’ve rewound to the past [with the emergence of the Delta variant]. But we’ll continue to be responsive and center young peoples’ voices and support staff in the school year ahead.

CEP:
We also believe this work is relational. Yes, connecting in a human space is important. But the limitations of the pandemic fostered a spirit of creativity to find different ways of doing this work. Early on, we realized that different things would be needed to meet this moment of urgency. One of those ways was having our staff dedicate eight hours to community projects, events, or support of family. Recognizing the enormity of the pandemic and trying to implement responsive practices that take stock of our humanity is important to RE-Center’s work.

MSK:
Are you continuing to train adults virtually as an organization? Did schools lean in or opt out due to stretched systems in the pandemic?

NMZ:
There’s an interesting intersection of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. Early on in the pandemic, there was a moment in time when things slowed down and organizations like ours questioned what engagement opportunities would look like. The tragic Floyd murder changed everything for us. More people were energized and animated to take on this work. RE-Center had to vet partnerships and assess readiness, and in that process we learned invaluable things we’ll definitely carry forward. One key lesson learned is to have more frequent meetings with partners but in smaller dosages. Gone are the days of a six-hour training session — and we try not to make racial equity work an “event” anyhow — now, we pick up the phone and coach a superintendent to navigate this work or have shorter Zoom sessions within our networks. 

CEP:
We recognize that we’re all “Zoomed out” so we try to make meetings shorter to ensure engagement. Hybrid models borne of the pandemic have enabled RE-Center to be in more spaces. Moving from meeting to meeting virtually is something that had been limiting before with geographic boundaries. RE-Center often had to defend our work pre-pandemic, but now there’s a growing and deeper level of understanding in the field. That’s been one bright spot amid the trauma and grief of the last 18 months.

MSK:
I see this in my work with schools across the country: folks are grappling with dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racial injustice. When you think ahead to SY2021-22, what’s on your mind? What are you concerned or excited about, and what do you want to share with schools as kids return?

NMZ:
I hope this is an opportunity to lean into centering young people in a humanizing way. Many students haven’t physically been together for 18 months and it makes us wonder what being “together” looks like in the school year ahead. How can we support educators to support young people with the same concerns? The Delta variant, attacks and misunderstandings of Critical Race Theory, volatile school board meetings, these are all creating a palpable fear even with educators we’ve worked with in the past. We have to keep the momentum going in focusing our work on centering racial equity.

MSK:
Is there a common mistake schools make when they think they center students’ needs, or do you typically see an “aha!” moment that marks a lasting shift?

NMZ:
There are so many pandemic examples, especially with school-based health practices. Kids virtually learning at home are on different schedules and, in many cases, can center their own needs in ways that don’t always translate in traditional school buildings. We should afford young people the same level of trust. Scheduling and curriculum for the first six weeks of SY2021-22 are critical. Are we going to lean into new, restorative ways of structuring the school day or are we going to fall back into deficit training? Are we going to ask kids if they’re OK and if the school community can hold space for shared grief? We must ask those questions first and avoid the inclination to over-focus on deficit-based thinking like talking about “learning loss.” Instead of asking how far behind sixth graders are, maybe we should shift content and teaching approaches to respond to the collective water we’re all swimming in.

CEP:
We have to recognize the loss and acknowledge that so many young people have experienced domestic violence, tragedy, grief, and more and are going to bring that into the school building with them every day. It’s important that we hold space for humanity and for the collective loss and grief we’re all experiencing. And, to recognize that systems we had in place pre-pandemic weren’t working for young people (for example, mental health supports). Acknowledging our shared humanity is the first step toward lasting change.

(*Editorial note: RE-Center is a past Bellwether client; this version carries a minor correction for accuracy)

Building Connection and Boosting Achievement: The Role of Language Immersion Schools

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

Too many Americans are missing out on the benefits of multilingualism. While roughly half of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual, only 20% of Americans can speak a language other than English fluently. Of that 20%, more than half were born outside of the U.S. American students rarely gain foreign language fluency in public schools, as opposed to Europe, where dual- or multi-language learning is embedded in primary education. Language learning at a young age has been proven to promote language retention into adulthood and provide a host of other social and academic benefits. As part of the 1% of American students who gained fluency in a new language through school, I can directly attest to its lifelong benefits. 

From kindergarten through fifth grade, I attended a French-immersion public magnet school. At language immersion schools, students are expected to speak exclusively in a given language while learning all of the standard subjects that would be taught at a typical American school. I learned science, math, history, and art just like any other student, but in French. We began supplementary English classes in the second grade to learn grammar and spelling, but our main curriculum was rooted in French. Although I had no prior exposure to French before kindergarten, by the time I reached third grade I was fluent. 

Since leaving a French-speaking environment in elementary school, my ability to speak French fluently has diminished slightly, but the experience has continued to benefit me in my academic and professional pursuits. In high school, I took Spanish for my required language classes and found it to be very similar to learning French. Picking up on the similarities between the two languages allowed me to excel at Spanish and speak the language with greater confidence. However, I’ve noticed that even today, my French retention is stronger. I believe this is largely due to learning the language at a younger age. 

Socially, I’ve used French to build relationships with native French speakers that wouldn’t be possible if I only spoke English. I think of my current neighbor, who is originally from Morocco and spent time living in France, who instantly lit up when he found out that I could speak in a language more familiar to him. Or the French-speaking high school exchange student I hosted from Mali, who felt more comfortable learning English with me knowing she could ask for translation support. The level of connection I’ve been privileged to experience with others has helped me learn about different cultures and expand my worldview ​​— an opportunity all Americans should be afforded.

Professionally, I’ve been able to apply my language skills in translation services. I once interned at a crisis center in Charlotte, North Carolina that received clients from all over the county. We had clients who immigrated to the U.S. from French-speaking countries and spoke little English. Out of a staff of more than 30 employees, I was the only one who could translate and communicate with them. In public service, multilingual staff can help connect non-native English speakers to necessary resources. 

As the immigrant population continues to grow in the U.S., more employers are placing greater value on bilingualism as a preferred skill. In fact, workers in the U.S. with fluency in more than one language tend to earn more on average. Learning another language as early as possible sets students on a trajectory for greater earning potential and aligns with workforce needs. 

The popularity of language immersion schools has increased significantly over the last few decades, yet there are not nearly enough schools to meet demand. Many native and non-native English-speaking families are seeking language immersion programs because of their positive effects on student academic performance. Studies have shown that elementary school students in language immersion programs tend to have higher math test scores and demonstrate similar levels of proficiency in English Language Arts as non-immersion students. Language immersion schools have also been effective at closing achievement gaps, with Black and Latino students performing on par with — or often outperforming — their white peers.

Language is a source of connection that far too many Americans take for granted. I was lucky to attend one of more than 337 language immersion elementary schools in the U.S., an opportunity that every family should have. Learning French has opened new worlds and exposed me to a variety of cultures and people. Language immersion schools are a necessary tool to produce more well-rounded global thinkers that can communicate effectively with people from different backgrounds.

Given the academic, social, and professional benefits of being bilingual, language immersion schools should be a priority for K-12 school districts in the U.S.

Saidah Rahman completed an internship at Bellwether Education Partners this summer focused on education policy. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and management at Carnegie Mellon University.