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Zoning Boards: Protecting the Zip Codes

A few years ago NPR did a piece on people who kept their zip codes, like their telephone numbers, even after they had moved out of the area. As I recall, interviewees explained the myriad benefits of keeping their zip code.  For example, one interviewee said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “It was so much easier for my friends not to have to learn a new zip code for me after I moved.”

Said another, “Zip codes are hard to remember.  I like that mine ends in double digits.”

A third interviewee said,  “ I worked hard to be able to live in this zip code. It’s only fair that I can take it with me if my work transfers me to another city.”

ZoningOf course, it turned out that it was all a clever joke broadcast on April 1, April Fool’s Day. 

I thought of that piece when I read the results of a new study conducted by senior research analyst Jonathan Rothwell at the Brookings Institution.   Rothwell discovered that houses cost significantly more (2.4 times) near high performing schools than near low-performing schools.  Homes in high performing districts tend to be larger and fewer in terms of density than in low-performing districts.  Reviewing the study in EdWeek, Nirvi Shah writes, “Zoning regulations that intend to keep population density low segregate cities and towns by race and income.” 

It’s a eureka moment.

Thanks to Rothwell’s study, we now understand that a person who just bought a $850, 000 house in an upscale zip code can thank the zoning board that a double-wide won’t go in next door.  “I haven’t seen anything that tries nationally to document the financial barriers that low-income families face to get into high-performing schools,” says Rothwell.  In a post on the Brookings site he adds,  “Zoning laws are keeping poor children out of high-scoring schools, degrading education, and weakening economic opportunity.”

Of course.  But this is one of those studies that elicits a big yawn and a so what.  High performing schools don’t simply occur in nature like maybe a giant redwood.  Some would argue that zoning laws cause high-performing schools because allow they people with money and influence to create those kinds of schools for their kids.  If you’re living in a state that depends for its school budget on property tax, you know there’s a direct correlation between expensive real estate and high performing schools.  Just saying … it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll be able to provide access and opportunity for low-income kids by changing zoning laws so that their families can find inexpensivie housing in upscale communities. We’ve already seen how moves like that result in a plethora of gated communities.

Still, it’s another way of looking at the disparity between educational opportunities for low-income kids and for their more affluent peers.  As a former superintendent in a low to middle income rural community, however, I think we’d have a better chance of leveling the playing field by pushing for greater aid to more needy schools. And BTW, if you think being on a school board is tough, sit in on a local zoning board meeting.


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.