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Could new zoning laws help educate poor kids?

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Apr 19, 2012

Jeremy Hobson: A report out today from the Brookings Institution offers a theory on how to improve education for poor kids — change zoning laws.

For an explanation, here’s Marketplace’s Nancy Marshall-Genzer from our Wealth and Poverty Desk.

Nancy Marshall-Genzer: It’s a busy morning at the Bruce Monroe Elementary School in Washington. Third-grader Marcus King sits to one side of his classroom, by himself. His mother, Theresa King, meets me there to talk about her dreams for Marcus, who has special needs. First off, a move to a better school district.

Theresa King: I would go. No question. I would definitely go.

King moved to Washington less than a year ago from a Maryland suburb, where Marcus’s classes were small.

King: He needs that one-on-one. Not just someone standing there, saying take out a piece of paper, write your name — because he doesn’t understand that.

When King lost her job in Maryland, she and Marcus moved into public housing in the city. It wasn’t available in the suburbs.

Jonathan Rothwell says that’s no accident. He wrote the Brookings report on zoning.

Jonathan Rothwell: In most metropolitan areas, it’s impossible to build affordable housing in affluent neighborhoods because of zoning laws.

Those laws don’t allow apartment buildings or townhouses. Rothwell says zoning laws should be changed to require construction of affordable housing so low-income students can go to the best schools.

But urban policy consultant Wendell Cox says ultimately…

Wendell Cox: The way to improve educational performance is by fixing the schools.

In every neighborhood. Rothwell says that’ll take years. It’s more practical to change zoning laws to give kids like Marcus King a better education, so they can scramble a little higher on the economic ladder.

In Washington, I’m Nancy Marshall-Genzer for Marketplace.

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