Using Housing to Bridge the Achievement Gap

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HARTFORD, CT— On Monday, February 27, 2012, the Connecticut Association for Human Services hosted a public forum entitled “Opportunity in Connecticut: The Impact of Race, Poverty and Education on Family Economic Success.” Panelists with different backgrounds in housing, human rights, and the education system came together in the Old Judiciary Room of the capitol building to discuss a disturbing trend in Connecticut education. The trend is this: there is a large gap in achievement between white and minority students. The panel, facilitated by Eastern Connecticut State University’s president, Dr. Elsa M. Nuñez, especially focused on the topic of the Connecticut housing industry and its impact on the educational opportunities presented to children and their families. The panelists included Erin Boggs (Deputy Director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center), George Coleman (Deputy Commissioner of the Connecticut State Department of Education), Orlando Rodriquez (Senior Policy Fellow with the Connecticut Voices for Children), and Valerie Shultz-Wilson (President and CEO of the Urban League of Southern Connecticut).

Opportunity in Connecticut
The forum opened up with a small power point presentation by Connecticut Kids Count Director, Jude Carroll in which she highlighted the crucial issues concerning race, poverty, and education. In her presentation, Carroll introduced a map that presented the comprehensive opportunity for children across the state of Connecticut (see page 5 of her document). Opportunity mapping geographically divides the state of Connecticut into very-low, low, moderate, high, and very-high opportunity zones according to their economic activity, job availability, school quality, house affordability, and access to healthy food. This kind of mapping illustrates the areas within the state of Connecticut that are either suffering or providing the most stimulating environment. From the depiction, Jude Carroll extrapolated that neighborhoods with limited opportunities were highly populated areas. Historically, these were also neighborhoods subjected to redlining in the past. Another staggering reality concluded that “Eighty-one percent of Blacks and 79 percent of Hispanics live in such ‘low-opportunity’ Connecticut neighborhoods, compared to 26 percent Whites. Conversely, ‘very high opportunity’ and ‘high opportunity’ neighborhoods are disproportionately White.”1 A histogram included in the power point demonstrated that the median household net worth for whites in the year 2008 was $195,771 while minorities lagged behind at $3,000. These numbers provided concrete evidence of the racial disparities that still exist in this nation. At the end of her presentation, Jude Carroll proposed solutions for improving Connecticut’s current economic despair. These solutions included creating tax incentives for cities to become net job creators and high opportunity areas, making sure jobs pay family-supporting wages, prioritizing racial and economic integration, creating an Education Rental Assistance Program, revamping the state’s school funding mechanism, increasing minimum wages, and increasing availability of need-based financial aid—a tall order for Connecticut state policy makers.

Choice in Terms of Housing
Choice in schooling has been a popular issue in the education debate for a long time. However, in most educational debates, not many education reformers mention family choice in deciding where they want to live. Today, Erin Boggs of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center was firm in her belief that children should not have the power to choose where they want to go to school, but also that families should have the right to decide where they want to live. In her five-minute presentation, Boggs pointed out that, due mostly to historical segregation, minorities continue to populate areas with low opportunity. These are areas with high crime rates, low job growth rates, and poor schools. She mentioned the link between poverty and schools—that the schools were struggling because the concentration of poverty was so high. Her suggestion? Create affordable subsidized housing in high opportunity areas, bringing children and families out of low opportunity areas and nearer to thriving schools.

Of course, affordable housing in high opportunity areas is not a perfect solution. George Coleman, Deputy Commissioner of the Connecticut State Department of Education, expressed concern during the panelist discussion that as the poor moved into these homes, the rich would move out. Boggs combated this concern by suggesting that school systems be financially rewarded for offering affordable housing in high opportunity areas. Others, like Valerie Shultz-Wilson, President and CEO of the Urban League of Southern Connecticut, wondered if minority families would feel comfortable moving out of their communities and into high-income areas. Boggs argued that the housing movement was all about choice, about creating opportunities for families to succeed, but not forcing them into high opportunity areas. She also gave an example of a housing movement in Baltimore, Maryland when, given the opportunity, poor families created no opposition to relocate to suburban areas.

One thing is for certain, the achievement gap in Connecticut is the largest in the country. While advocates for reform struggle to find the solution, the idea of using housing to bridge this gap appears to be a promising one.

1 Reece, J. Gambhir, S., Olinger, J. Martin, M., and Harris, M. (2009) People, Place and Opportunity: Mapping Communities of Opportunity in Connecticut. A Joint Project of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center and Kirwan institute for the Study.

Writers Shantel Hanniford (far right) and Richelle Benjamin (second from left) in front of the Old Judiciary Building