Utahns looking for affordable housing near high-performing schools fare better than their counterparts nationally. But some low-income children, especially in the Salt Lake Valley, have less access to good schools because of zoning restrictions and housing costs, according to a study from the Brookings Institution released Thursday.
The corridor stretching from Ogden to Provo was among 100 metropolitan areas in the country that Brookings targeted in an effort to estimate the actual cost of living near a given public school and determine whether local zoning laws influence school test scores. The study's author says the analysis found that "access to high-scoring schools is unequal by income and race because that access is constrained by housing availability and cost."
Key findings include:
• Nationwide, the average low-income student attends a school that scores in the 42nd percentile on state exams, while average middle/high income students attend schools that score in the 61st percentile. The gap is even larger between African-American and Latino students and whites.
• Across the areas studied, housing costs an average of 2.4 times as much, or nearly $11,000 more per year, near a high-scoring public school than a low-scoring one.
The biggest gaps in housing costs and test scores were in the Northeast. Utah's three metropolitan areas Ogden-Clearfield, Salt Lake City and Provo-Orem fared much better in the housing gap, ranking 91st, 95th and 96th, respectively, of the 100 areas examined in the report. That means housing costs near high-scoring elementary schools are only 1.4 to 1.6 times higher than near low-scoring schools.
In areas with bigger gaps, restrictive zoning laws discourage inexpensive housing and artificially inflate housing costs near high-performing schools, said the report's author Jonathan Rothwell, a senior policy analyst at Brookings.
"Zoning has exacerbated economic segregation, and we wanted to look at what role zoning is playing," Rothwell said. "We see it costs a lot of money to live near a high-performing public school."
Such zoning restrictions can limit everything from lot size to population density, Rothwell said, and higher-income areas full of single-family homes are often the most restricted.
Salt Lake City was more "economically segregated" a measure of income diversity in schools than Ogden or Provo, ranking 62nd compared to 93 for Provo and 99 for Ogden. The test score gap between low income and middle/high income Salt Lake students was also higher, ranking 53rd compared to Ogden's ranking of 89 and Provo's 99.
Economic segregation in Utah is mitigated somewhat by the state's robust open enrollment program, said Carol Lear, director of school law at the State Office of Education. The program allows students to enroll at a school outside their neighborhood. But that opportunity can impose another form of economic inequality, Lear said, as parents who choose to send their children to other schools often must bear the burden of transporting them.
Utah's clustered population and the fact that the income disparity in the state is smaller than elsewhere also helps, Lear said. And while 40 states have faced lawsuits over educational equity, Utah has not.
"We try really hard to spread the little money that there is around," Lear said.
The report also confirmed several stereotypes, Rothwell said, including that African-American and Latino students are much more restricted in their access to high-scoring schools.
"Schools are not only segregated by income, they are still segregated by race to a great extent," Rothwell said, noting that 40 percent of students scoring in the 20th percentile and below are Latino. "Black and Latino students are disproportionately represented in low-scoring schools."
Utah cities have recognized the importance of affordable housing in all areas, said Claudia O'Grady of the Utah Housing Corporation. Salt Lake City in particular has aggressively sought zoning that allows for high-density housing in all areas.
"Many Utah communities have really responded by reviewing zoning laws and making sure there is a supply of a variety of housing types in all corners of their community," O'Grady said.
The impact of zoning on housing prices may be overstated, said Wilf Sommerkorn, Salt Lake City's planning director. Such factors as the cost of land and construction costs are much more influential, he said.
"Zoning does have an impact, but it is generally small compared to other factors," Sommerkorn said. "The only places where that doesn't hold true is where you have a really tight housing market, where prices are very high."
But a shortage of affordable housing still prevents low-income kids from attending high-performing schools, Rothwell said, and that barrier will persist regardless of open-enrollment choices or higher teacher pay.
"Those are all well and good," Rothwell said, "but we have to pay attention to how students are assigned to schools in the first place."
Read the report
O To see how Utah communities scored in all areas examined by the report, visit http://bit.ly/HTQhp4.