Op-Ed: Educational Equity Is Threatened By Weakening Tools Used To Fight Housing Discrimination

Residential segregation drives school segregation.

Recently, America learned about rampant discrimination within the real estate market through a years-long investigation into practices on Long Island, New York. 

But if you talk to people of color on Long Island, these findings are, sadly, not startling, but representative of a deeply disturbing status quo. 

The investigation found that Black prospective home buyers experienced discrimination in the real estate market at a rate of 49%, Hispanic home buyers at a rate of 39%, and Asian-American home buyers at a rate of 19%.

Related: Ben Carson’s New Housing Rule Could Lead To More Racial Segregation

Unfortunately, the story here isn’t only about Long Island. Over four million instances of discrimination occur each year throughout the country. This not only hampers efforts to reduce residential segregation; it also perpetuates racial inequality in education. 

Education is at the heart of America’s promise of opportunity. A quality, public education offers a path to a good job and a thriving life, and helps children realize their potential and contribute to society.

As a nation, we ought to be doing everything we can to preserve the civil rights protections that help guarantee equal access to a strong public education. 

That includes working to combat unfair and discriminatory housing policies that isolate children of color in areas of concentrated poverty with little to no proximity to well-resourced, quality public schools in their communities.

But instead of promoting fair opportunities, the Trump administration has been chipping away at critical federal civil rights protections in the Fair Housing Act — specifically the disparate impact standard and the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule.

In place for decades and repeatedly upheld in the courts — including by the U.S. Supreme Court — the disparate impact standard is a key legal tool to fight bias and discrimination in an array of areas. It is used to determine, for example, whether policies and practices have an unlawful effect resulting in disparities in outcomes by race, ethnicity, or sex. The standard has been adopted by more than two dozen federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Education.

Disparate impact is a primary means of combating discrimination and segregation in our communities and, by extension, in our public schools. But the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has announced plans to significantly weaken the disparate impact standard.

This should concern us all.

We know that residential segregation drives school segregation, which results in disparate outcomes for our children drawn along lines of race and class.

A 2018 study showed that for every 1% increase in neighborhood segregation across cities, there was an average 1.04% increase in school segregation. That deepening divide does nothing to set up our communities or our country for success, particularly as our nation is growing more and more diverse.

To be sure, neighborhood segregation isolates communities of color into poorly resourced and economically disadvantaged areas. Research shows that residential segregation, and the racial wealth gap it helps to exacerbate, both ensure that even middle-class Black families are more likely to live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and to send their children to high-poverty, poorly resourced schools than are low-income White families.

Related: Moms 4 Housing Members Evicted From West Oakland Home And Arrested By Armed Sheriff’s Deputies

And because school districts rely so heavily on local funding via property taxes, schools in segregated neighborhoods mirror the structural disadvantages of the neighborhoods around them.

Studies — including research from The Education Trust — consistently show that students who attend racially and socioeconomically isolated schools are more likely to lack vital resources, including equitable school funding and access to effective and well-prepared educators; school counselors; rigorous coursework; and safe environments for learning. These disparities in access to opportunity, in turn, result in disparities in both academic and economic outcomes.

In 2016, I [John King] joined with the Secretaries of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development serving under President Obama to issue a “Dear Colleague” letter emphasizing that socioeconomic and racial diversity in schools and communities promotes opportunity and mobility. This effort was an outgrowth of the National Fair Housing Alliance’s (NFHA) work with federal agencies to advance the nation’s fair housing goals.

We recognized then that “children raised in concentrated poverty or in communities segregated by socioeconomic status, race, or ethnicity tend to have significantly lower social and economic mobility than children growing up in integrated communities.” The Obama administration acted by issuing the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which, among other things, sought to encourage state and local educational agencies to provide equal access to high-quality schools and increase the diversity of the communities served by those schools. But the Trump administration’s HUD has just announced a proposal that would undo this rule entirely and give agencies a free pass on discrimination — another move backward in a series of efforts to dismantle Fair Housing Act protections. If the Trump administration is successful, NFHA’s recently released recommendations for halting real estate sales discrimination and diminishing segregation will be exceedingly difficult to achieve.

Studies show that racial and socioeconomic diversity can lead to improved outcomes for all students, with particularly significant benefits for students from low-income backgrounds. For example, compared to peers who attend higher-poverty schools, students from low-income backgrounds who attend diverse schools with lower levels of poverty perform better academically, and they are substantially more likely to attend college.

The benefits aren’t only academic. We see richer social-emotional learning for all young people in diverse schools who have the opportunity to interact with peers who have various backgrounds and experiences, which better prepares them for diverse post-secondary educational experiences and workplaces, and strengthens our democratic society.

Disparate impact and the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule are the most powerful tools we have to fight the de facto and de jure segregation that leads to continued inequality in housing and education. Without it, the more than four million Americans who experience housing discrimination each year will be left without legal recourse, and gaps in opportunity that disproportionately effect children of color and children from low-income families will only continue to widen.

We can, and must, do better for our kids, our communities, and our country. Take action by expressing your opposition to HUD’s most recent proposal to eliminate the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule. Submit a comment today on behalf of all those who suffer under the effects of systemic discrimination. Together, we can keep housing and education fair.

John B. King Jr. is former U.S. Education Secretary under President Obama and head of The Education Trust – a civil rights education organization committed to closing opportunity gaps for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. Lisa Rice is president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), the nation’s only national civil rights agency solely dedicated to eliminating all forms of housing discrimination.

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