Elizabeth H. DeBray, Philip Tegeler, Ariel H. Bierbaum, & Andrew J. Greenlee
Segregation and concentration of poverty are long-standing issues with material consequences for academic and life outcomes as well as democratic representation and participation. The enduring impacts of housing and school segregation continue to undermine the democratic nature of our public education system. As powell pointed out more than 25 years ago:
The failure to act perpetuates the injury of apartheid in education, housing, and, indeed, in our very psyche. If we are to avoid a fractured society, forever at war with itself, we must make it possible for everyone to participate equally in our communities. We must challenge the racial hierarchy implicit in segregation and remove the barriers to discovering our common humanity, filtered through our differences (powell, 1996, p. 754).
Segregation, as powell noted, does not just create a racialized hierarchy, but creates uneven geographies of opportunity that foreclose low-income households and Black and Brown communities’ access to quality healthcare, housing, employment, transportation, childcare, education, and so on, resulting in negative consequences and outcomes (Galster & Killen, 1995). On the flipside, these geographies enable spatial “opportunity hoarding” where wealthier and predominantly White households accrue positive outcomes from the implicit and explicit policy mechanisms that have spatially distributed opportunity unevenly (Rury & Rife, 2018). Desegregated schools have had real material benefit; attendance at racially desegregated schools and higher per-pupil spending have been found to reduce intergenerational transmission of poverty (Johnson & Nazaryan, 2019). Despite these gains, inter-district racial disparities have increased over the past decades (Owens et al., 2016), while fragmentation of multiple school districts in metropolitan areas hindered coordination of broader policies aimed at reducing the racial isolation of students (Holme & Finnigan, 2018).
In the realm of housing, individual-level actions exacerbate and cement segregation. For example, in many communities, parents and realtors rely on test-based accountability metrics to market houses and neighborhoods, which worsens racially segregated patterns in both housing and schools (Wells, 2015). In this way, “privileged families shape not only the schools [and neighborhoods] they choose, but also the ones they don’t” (Noonan & Schneider, 2022). Less attention is paid to the role of transportation in school and neighborhood segregation, though some recent work has focused on mobility justice as far as the role of transportation in education equity and spatial patterns relating to public transportation access (Bierbaum et al., 2020).
Regions and states could act to promote greater collaboration, but education is almost never addressed by metropolitan planning organizations, and local politics usually thwart any regionwide consensus or willingness to collaborate and cede the advantages of affluent districts and municipalities. For instance, a regional student assignment plan for Omaha, Nebraska was created in 2008, but was not sustained because of the lack of cooperation by suburban districts (Holme & Finnigan, 2018). A different point of intervention is needed, and a new scale of action required. By linking the housing, education, and transportation sectors, we can begin to abolish racial exclusion and radically transform our society.
A Problem of Intergovernmental Relations
Given the current structural and political limitations of both local and regional entities, we contend that the federal government has a crucial role to play promoting and facilitating collaboration toward reducing segregation across the siloed policy areas of housing, education, and transportation. The federal government is the only actor with the leverage and resources to promote common targets that will enhance spatial and educational justice for children and families.
Our suggestion is not without precedent. In 2011, the What Works Collaborative commissioned researchers at the UC Berkeley Center for Cities + Schools (CC+S) to write a white paper on the nexus of schools, housing, and regional planning for sustainable communities (McKoy et al., 2011). While not explicitly focused on desegregation, the CC+S white paper outlines persistent challenges of cross-sector and multi-level collaboration, despite acknowledged synergies and shared goals towards equity. These challenges include divergent approaches to mitigating inequities and segregation (e.g., place-based investments versus mobility strategies); deeply entrenched silos that result in jurisdictional misalignment, different time horizons for planning and implementation; a lack of shared vocabulary, metrics, and data systems; and limited staff capacity to initiate and sustain cross-sector collaborations (McKoy et al., 2011).
The persistence of these challenges, particularly in the struggles towards neighborhood and school integration, motivated a 2016 federal “Dear Colleague” letter “calling on local education, transportation, and housing leaders to work together on issues at the intersection of our respective missions in helping to guarantee full access of opportunity across the country” ((US Department of Housing and Urban Development, US Department of Education, & US Department of Transportation, 2016). The secretaries of Education, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development encouraged local and regional jurisdictions to leverage new analysis and community planning processes under the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule “so that regional planning promotes economic mobility and equal access to the many benefits provided by affordable housing, great schools, and reliable transportation.”
This 2016 statement is important but narrow in scope (focused only on AFFH) and limited in strength (with no mandate or “carrots” incentivizing coordination). Although many AFFH plans across the country included very basic and narrow school quality data and a few incorporated school district perspectives in their plans (Finnigan et al., 2021), the mandate came without clear protocols for implementation or clarification regarding how local and regional institutions and school districts might coordinate around the use of federal funds resulting in weak cross-sector efforts. And importantly, the Trump administration halted this initiative. In the absence of policy and regulatory clarity, the work of cross-sector coordination for desegregation remains subject to the political winds at all levels of government.
Next Steps: Linking Policy, Research, and Practice across Sectors
Now is the time to take up and further specify the recommendations of the CC+S white paper (McKoy et al., 2011). Specifically, the federal government working in tandem with academic and practitioner partners should initiate a collaborative process to define a meaningful sub-state or regional geographic unit for the purposes of analysis, accountability, and targeted implementation. Research and documentation, convening and consensus-building, and ongoing learning from practice are central to identifying the specific vocabulary, metrics, and shared data systems necessary to achieve meaningful integration in schools and communities. Through cross-sector and multi-scalar work, these efforts would also build the capacity of local and regional leaders through cross-sector learning, toolkits and policy development. This could potentially lead to initial efforts focused on translating collaborative diagnoses across these sectors into collaborative and cross-sector implementation.
A short-lived effort during the Obama Administration, the Sustainable Communities Initiative, did not engage public schools, but showed promise in incentivizing regional collaboration on housing and transportation (HUD, 2017). The Initiative was centered at the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) level, and with federal financial support, dozens of regions developed housing-transportation plans. Many regions also developed a “Fair Housing Equity Assessment” looking at barriers to equal housing access and integration – a precursor to the 2015 AFFH rule.
A new interagency task force could revisit the potential of this Obama-era program, but this time more comprehensively, with education planning and participation of state and local school agencies. The task force could be jointly administered among ED, DOT, and HUD to develop and incentivize cross-sector programs with neighborhoods and school-level racial and economic integration as the desired outcome. No new legislation would be required for such an effort, as it is built into HUD’s affirmatively furthering fair housing obligations under the Fair Housing Act, and also implicit in the Department of Education’s and the Department of Transportation’s obligations under Title VI to avoid policies with a foreseeable discriminatory impact (Tegeler, 2016). Such affirmative obligations at DOT and ED are also arguably required under the Fair Housing Act, as these agencies play a significant role in urban and regional development (42 USC 3608; Executive Order 12892, 1994; Abraham, 2022).
A national community of practice (CoP) supporting the interagency task force could be the centerpiece of these efforts and help to advance progress. Facilitated by academic partners who are thought leaders in the space of housing and school segregation, metropolitan inequality, transportation justice, and cross-sector collaboration, the CoP would necessarily include a diverse set of voices to ensure cross-fertilization and knowledge development. In particular, planners and community development professionals tackle a diverse range of issues related to housing, employment, transportation, taxation, and spatial integration that have direct implications for education policy and equity. CoP members thus would include: urban and regional planners, community development professionals, housing and transportation experts, educators and educational leaders working at local, regional, state, and federal levels on policies, planning, and program implementation. Non-education regional commissions and state education and school board members/superintendents would also be invited to the network, with substantial input built in from parents, students, and community residents.
As CoP members brought their practice and policy-making to the network, facilitators would provide ongoing technical assistance, document existing efforts and craft a toolkit for local and regional practitioners, and develop model state, regional, and local policies. Facilitators could conduct a national survey and convene the CoP network to identify metrics, vocabulary, opportunities for desegregation and cross-sector collaboration around desegregation strategies. Out of this local and regional work and in consultation with federal agency CoP members, facilitators would propose pilot programs, policies, and regulatory language that HUD, DOT, and ED could adopt to advance these goals.
Facilitators, working with CoP members would also document all federal policies that currently help to drive school and housing segregation and develop workable solutions. This work has already started. For example, Title I of the Every Student Succeeds Act’s funding formula penalizes districts for reducing poverty concentration through interdistrict programs and disincentivizes efforts to reduce poverty concentration in individual schools (Tegeler & Milwit, 2019). Another example is transportation for interdistrict magnet schools, which is vital for important for those that may draw students from neighboring districts. A 2008 study of magnet school leaders found that magnet schools that provided free transportation were less likely to be racially isolated than those that did not (Frankenberg & Siegel-Hawley 2008). Finally, as mentioned above, the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule, expected to be fully reinstated in 2024, has the potential to encourage states, local jurisdictions, and housing authorities to develop and promote policies improving access to high-quality schools and to collaborate with school districts. However, recent research revealed that most of the initial plans did not actually have such goals, and very few had discussion of the housing-school segregation linkage in their Contributing Factors section (Finnigan et al., 2021). Additionally, state governments may be in the strongest position to encourage and oversee regional cross-sector collaboration (Haberle & Tegeler, 2019), but due to bureaucratic delays, state governments never had the opportunity to engage with the original AFFH rule in 2016-17 before the Trump Administration suspended it. When the new rule is rolled out next year, there will be significant opportunities for advocacy and innovation to support cross-sector efforts toward integration (Sullivan et al., 2022).
Through systematic review, more avenues for cross-sector engagement and alignment will be identified and model policies and pilot programs proposed at the federal level for state, regional, and local practitioners to implement.
Prior efforts have been unsustainable, in part because federal policymakers do not have cross-sector policy targets. There is also currently jurisdictional misalignment from the federal government; that is, there is not a definition of what is a meaningful sub-state of “regional” unit that ED, DOT, HUD (and anyone else) could agree upon. As a consequence, the spatial orientation, vocabulary, and levers for change are not well coordinated. Only when there is a deliberate initiative to unite researchers, policymakers and practitioners across fields of specialization, supported with capacity-building, guidance, and research about what policies currently exist, can the underlying structures militating against integration be alleviated.
The next phase of addressing the impact of segregation and the concentration of poverty on the educational opportunities and outcomes for youth requires cross-sector knowledge generation and action that will bridge the disparate worlds of education policy, housing, transportation, urban planning, community development, and law. The solutions identified here lay the groundwork to build the political capacity and will for cross-sector solutions to these seemingly intractable issues so that we might begin to finally bring about more equitable outcomes through federal policy change.
Elizabeth H. DeBray (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Professor of Educational Administration and Policy at the University of Georgia, Philip Tegeler (email@example.com) is Executive Director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, Ariel H. Bierbaum (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Assistant Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Maryland, and Andrew J. Greenlee (email@example.com) is an Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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Link to the full issue of Poverty & Race Journal, Volume 32 No.3 (August-December 2023)