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Massachusetts and other New England states should create more affordable housing in suburbs with high-performing schools to expand educational opportunities for low-income students, according to a report released Monday that said New England has among the widest achievement gaps nationwide.
Creating more affordable housing in affluent communities would also remedy gaps in achievement between white students and those who are Black or Latino — and who are more likely to be living in poverty — according to the report, from the New England Public Policy Center at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
Any statewide affordable housing mandates would likely require controversial tradeoffs in local control, specifically in the areas of development and schools, and force wealthy municipalities to relinquish “snob zoning” — lot-size restrictions, density limits, and other measures that aim to keep lower-income housing out of their towns.
“Statewide affordable housing policies, such as those in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, if applied more comprehensively, might reduce concentrations of poverty and provide more low-income families access to the higher-quality schools in low-poverty suburban districts,” the report said.
Currently, state and federal affordable housing measures tend to add housing stock in low-income areas, which in turn increases the likelihood of poor students attending schools with low standardized test scores.
The report also called for funneling more state aid to districts with high concentrations of students living in poverty. Massachusetts is in the midst of boosting public-school spending by about $1.5 billion over a seven-year period, under a law that went into effect in 2019. The funding formula is designed to target more money for low-income students and other student populations, such as those learning to speak English.
Keri Rodrigues, president of Massachusetts Parents United, which works with many low-income families of color, questioned the need for more affordable housing in the suburbs to address educational inequality. She said sending more state aid to schools with low-income students would make more sense.
“Why should we have to move to white neighborhoods to go to good schools?” she said. “We need to give Black and brown neighborhoods the same level of resources as those fancy white neighborhoods. . . . It’s not my kids’ proximity to white kids that produce better outcomes.”
Better ingredients for success for students of color, she said, are culturally inclusive classrooms led by teachers who look like them — an environment that would be difficult to replicate in overwhelmingly white suburban schools.
While the report said New England as a whole has among the highest test scores of all students, as well as for various subgroups, the gaps in performance between students of different racial and economic backgrounds are among the widest in the nation, “raising potential concerns about unequal educational opportunities.”
In an interview, Katharine Bradbury, the report’s author, stressed it did not say that “poverty segregation” causes lower scores on standardized tests, but it strongly suggests there is an association.
A spokesperson for state Education Secretary James Peyser declined to comment.
The report examined the performance of students in grades 3 to 8 on state and federal standardized tests administered from 2008 to 2016. It relies on a statistical model developed at Stanford University that accounts for differences in the makeup of state standardized tests across the nation.
The most pronounced gaps in achievement tended to be among students in metropolitan areas in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, where “poverty segregation” is the greatest.
“Among the six states, Connecticut’s metropolitan areas display the largest average test-score gaps, both racial and socioeconomic, while Massachusetts’ metropolitan areas have the highest average test-score levels overall and for all subgroups except Hispanic students,’ the report said.
In Massachusetts, the largest gaps in test scores between Hispanic and white students emerged in the Cambridge-Newton-Framingham metropolitan area, which stretches from affluent North Shore communities through the former mill cities of Lawrence, Lynn, and Lowell and across the wealthy suburbs west of Boston. That metropolitan area also had the largest gaps in performance between poor and affluent students.
The Boston metropolitan area, which includes Suffolk, Norfolk, and Plymouth counties, had the largest gap in test scores between Black and white students in Massachusetts.
Massachusetts officials have taken some big steps in recent months toward expanding affordable housing, including increasing tax credits for developers pursuing such projects, lowering the threshold of approval on local zoning boards to get projects built on land not designated for such use, and encouraging multifamily developments near MBTA stations.
State Representative Kevin Honan, a Brighton Democrat who recently stepped down as cochair of the joint housing committee, said Beacon Hill has a demonstrated commitment to adding more affordable housing in the state, but he added that “we need to do more of it, no question about it.”
“There needs to be a lot of work done in these other states, too,” he said.
Read the full report: