Making housing and zoning policies more inclusive for low-income families could help break up concentrations of poverty in schools.

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A U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month making it easier to sue government agencies for housing discrimination has sparked new discussion about the ways that housing and zoning policies concentrate poverty in schools.

This week, The Atlantic featured an interactive online map  showing student poverty rates in more than 13,000 school districts across the country and the sharp disparities that appear even among neighboring school systems.

Zooming in on Puget Sound, the Tukwila school district stands out with its near 46 percent poverty rate compared with Seattle’s 15 percent, according to the map from EdBuild, a nonprofit focused on school funding issues. 

Those numbers may seem low because  school districts measure income by the percentage of students who qualify for the federal free- and reduced-lunch program, which is 79 percent for Tukwila and 40 percent for Seattle. But those figures include families whose incomes can be as much as 85 percent above the federal poverty line.

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Either way, housing and zoning policies that segregate neighborhoods by income result in schools that reflect that segregation, which shows up in low test scores and “failing” labels for schools with the highest percentages of low-income kids. (And even within Seattle, there are big income — and racial — differences between schools.) 

“The concentration of low-income children within a school adds layers of challenges since it is harder to attract and retain well-prepared teachers and administrators, and also to maintain high rates of parental involvement,” researcher Heather Schwartz wrote in a 2013 article  for the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality.

But policies that make housing more affordable within the attendance areas of  higher-performing schools can help close income-based achievement gaps, which Schwartz found in her research on the Montgomery County school district in suburban Washington D.C., one of the nation’s wealthiest counties.

She found that the gap in math scores between students who lived in public housing — which is not concentrated in Montgomery’s poorest neighborhoods — and their wealthier classmates was cut in half by the end of elementary school.

The city of Seattle has been looking for solutions to making housing more affordable, but it’s a complicated puzzle.