Equitable Zoning Policy Should Care About Education, Too

On April 19, 2021, Richard D. Kahlenberg wrote for The New York Times a piece titled “The ‘New Redlining’ Is Deciding Who Lives in Your Neighborhood” where he claimed that zoning laws are maintaining racial segregation in American society. While Kahlenberg’s argument is robust and indeed full of helpful policy suggestions for political leaders designed to tear down the proverbial walls that keep White and Black Americans separate, I believe that his critique of American infrastructure is missing one key point: education.

Racial resentment against Blacks and other minority groups has plagued the United States since before its founding as a sovereign nation. Because of this, education has never been equal for all students. Kahlenberg claims in his piece that opposition to reforming discriminatory zoning policies is rooted in the unethical belief among white, working-class communities that “certain people [should be] kept out of their communit[ies].”

This morally repugnant state of mind is not new to the American way of life. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) rendering segregation in schools a violation of the Constitution’s protection of equal rights, resistance to integrating communities did not spontaneously cease to exist. Southern segregationists reacted immediately to the Court’s 1954 ruling by engaging in a crafty scheme of policy formulation designed to circumnavigate federal law and maintain segregation in school classrooms.

A key piece of this resistance to integration lies at the heart of education policy today. In a policy report published by an independent think tank, The Century Foundation, the growth of private schools as alternatives to public education is explicitly marked as a racist undertaking in that “predominantly white private schools were created as the result of deliberate efforts by white Christian parents to start private schools as an alternative to public schools, which were being integrated at the time.” A glance at the student populations of private, charter, and religious schools today would reveal that racial homogeneity is the predominant characteristic of these classrooms. In fact, “research has shown that the strongest predictor of white private school enrollment is the proportion of Black students in the local public schools.”

In a concentrated effort to keep people of color isolated and therefore relegated to a lower caste in American society, lawmakers have used policy tactics to veil their racism behind movements such as school choice which has led to the widespread adoption of public funding for private and charter school educations — inadvertently (but most likely deliberately) taking educational resources away from public schools that serve predominantly minority students.

Kahlenberg is right to say that single-family-only zoning perpetuates the unequal wealth gap between white and Black people, but what he fails to mention is that discriminatory zoning policy cannot be detached from unequal education for minorities across America. The Center for American Progress writes that “urban schools have high concentrations of students living in poverty and students who are English language learners” which makes the development of single-family-only housing even more pernicious. By incentivizing white families to pack up and move their children out of urban areas with high concentrations of students of color, the exclusionary zoning policies Kahlenberg lambastes are simultaneously keeping public school classrooms segregated along racial lines. America’s public schools are typically divided into districts — each district serving the students whose neighborhoods are close enough for the bus routes to reach.

I am not a stranger to the fact that school busses are a great public service to those students who do not have the privilege of private transportation between their homes and their schools. However, zoning policies conceived of in state legislatures are not primarily concerned with the transportation barriers that young people of color face. If proponents of the school choice movement believe that where a student lives should not determine where they get to attend school, then they should be more concerned about the zoning and districting policies that are implemented in their respective legislative branches. It is a far too common occurrence in America that the mass exodus of white students to private, charter or religious schools leaves in their wake a group of underprivileged students of color in the public school that was not of their choosing to fend for themselves in a school system that gets left behind in the budgeting process.

Changing the way we approach infrastructure policy must put racial equity at the forefront. To start, if public school districts are required to accept all students whose neighborhoods happen to be in the appropriate zone regardless of socio-economic status, then private, charter, and religious schools must be held to the same standard. It is time to put an end to the selective exclusivity that accompanies a private education. Racial integration is essential for increasing the value of receiving an education in America and the federal government — under its broad authority to regulate interstate commerce — should take the lead on ensuring no state or local government can construct discriminatory zoning policies that maintain segregation in America’s schools. As Kahlenberg argues in his piece, “if you care about social justice, you have to care about zoning.” But, for zoning policy to be truly equitable, it needs to care about education too.

Campbell, Neil and Catherine Brown. “Vouchers Are Not a Viable Solution for Vast Swaths of America.” Center for American Progress, 3 March 2017, https://tinyurl.com/h8bxr3jh, Accessed 31 March 2021.

Casey, Leo. “When Privatization Means Segregation: Setting the Record Straight on School

Vouchers.” Dissent Magazine, 9 Aug. 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ycnpp6vl, Accessed 18 March 2021.

Ford, Chris, et al. “The Racist Origins of Private School Vouchers.” Center for American Progress, 12 Jul. 2017, pp. 1–11.

Kahlenberg, Richard D. “The ‘New Redlining’ Is Deciding Who Lives in Your Neighborhood.” The New York Times, April 19, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/19/opinion/biden-zoning-social-justice.html. Accessed 26 April 2021.

Magness, Phillip, and Chris W. Surprenant. “School Vouchers, Segregation, and Consumer Sovereignty.” Journal of School Choice, vol. 13, no. 3, July 2019.

Potter, Halley. “Do Private School Vouchers Pose a Threat to Integration?” The Century Foundation, 21 March 2017, pp. 1–26.