Priced Out of Public Schools: District Lines, Housing Access, and Inequitable Educational Options

Research Rundown Issue: October '21
Publisher: Bellwether Education Partners
Date Published: October '21


Using census data, Bellwether examined the relationships between rental housing access, per-pupil funding, and school district boundaries in 200 of the country’s largest metropolitan areas. They calculated the percentage of housing units in each school district that a family of four at the federal poverty line in 2019 ($25,750) could afford, and also looked at the prevalence of poverty within the district. They found that more affluent districts with inaccessible housing are able to raise an, on average, $8,663 more per pupil than districts with concentrated low-income housing—more than double. While state and federal funding usually provide more money to districts that serve large concentrations of low-income students, it only reduces the local revenue gap by an average of $2,308 per pupil—leaving a gap of $6,355. This combination of funding inequities and limited housing access leaves many families priced out of certain public schools.

The authors provide five policy levers that can address the funding inequities, including state policy that reduces reliance on local, property-based revenue, addressing inequitable school boundaries, and creating more flexible enrollment programs that ensure all families have access to school options. They also recommend state and local government work to increase the supply of affordable rental housing units in communities where it is not currently available.

Why This Matters in Minnesota

Minnesota has made progress toward some of these recommendations, including state funding equity and ensuring access to enrollment options, but we still have a long way to go on these and other measures.

While nearly one-third of students enroll in school options besides their zoned local school, we know that “real estate choice”—which is when a family purposefully buys a home in a specific area because of their schools—remains a prevalent factor subject to the access concerns raised in the Bellwether report. What do we know about enrollment today?

  • 9.5% open enroll to another district;
  • 7% attend a charter school;
  • 6.7% attend an independent school;
  • 5.9% attend a magnet school; and
  • 3.1% are homeschooled.

It’s also estimated that about 1 in 5 U.S. public school students utilize “real estate” school choice. We know that many families, including those who may not yet have children, exercise this type of choice, but that it is limited based on income. These families have the economic means to purposefully purchase their homes based on the quality—real or perceived—of the zoned local schools.

Minnesota should continue to explore how state funding can ensure equitable access to high-quality schools, while preserving access to a variety of options for families no matter where they live. State and local housing policy must also play a role—and this is a timely topic with rising rents and limited housing supply in the Twin Cities metro area. This includes expanding access to affordable options across the region, while also ensuring local policies don’t further restrict families’ access to different school options. For example, both Minneapolis and Saint Paul have launched housing support programs that only provide rental assistance to low-income families enrolled in specific district schools This creates additional structural barriers and compounds the problem from an educational equity lens.

Read the report