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New study examines link between school choice policies and gentrification

Kathryn Kao

March 19, 2018

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Traditionally, choosing a good school means choosing a good neighborhood. However, increases in "school choice" policies—designed to improve schools by giving parents more control over where their children attend classes—weaken the link between schools and neighborhoods.

In a recent study published in the journal Sociology of Education, Francis Pearman II, an assistant professor of urban education at the University of Pittsburgh, and Walker A. Swain, an assistant professor in UGA's College of Education, consider how school choice policies affect the housing decisions of educated, white families, and in turn, contribute to gentrification.

They found that these households were far more likely to gentrify communities of color when school choice options expand, loosening the ties between urban housing and neighborhood schools.

Furthermore, school choice policies may accelerate gentrification processes that push out communities of color, while decreasing the odds that residents will invest in their neighborhood schools.

"We were surprised by the size of the apparent impact, as the expansion of school choice increases the likelihood of gentrification by up to 22 percentage points in the most racially isolated neighborhoods of color-more than doubling likelihood for these communities," said Swain. "If we want the influx of middle class white families to be more than fleeting pseudo-integration that ultimately pushes existing communities further from now-desirable urban centers, housing and school policy should be assessed in concert."

Ultimately, the study aims to inform policies that promote integrated, equitably invested communities and schools where diverse residents benefit together. According to Swain, future work should examine the ramifications on families and students living in these communities.

"There are some promising policy measures aimed at protecting housing affordability and ensuring diversity in public school choice systems," he said. "Gentrification has transformed the social, cultural and economic composition of many inner-city neighborhoods and will continue to do so in the coming years."

The study's results, which were highlighted in The Society Pages—an open—access social science project-show that school policy plays a clear role in gentrification and that examining the connection between this process and school policy holds considerable promise for understanding the future of U.S. cities.

"Whether or not that type of change hurts or helps people who historically occupied these neighborhoods depends on how the new residents and their resources integrate into the fabric of the community," said Swain. "A critical challenge in the field of education moving forward is to get ahead of these trends to help inform policy that ensures the benefits of gentrification flow to the children and institutions who need them most."