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Utah scores high for quality school access, economic integration

Published: Thursday, April 19 2012 4:58 p.m. MDT

Students in Danielle Wilson's kindergarten class, line up at the door as they participate in an earthquake drill at Vista Elementary in Taylorsville, Tuesday, April 17, 2012. This was part of the Great Utah ShakeOut.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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Provo has the fouth lowest levels of economic segregation in the U.S., which translates into smaller gaps in elementary school test scores between low- and high-income students, according to a study from the Brookings Institute.

Salt Lake and Ogden-Clearfield are also among the 10 U.S. metropolitan areas where housing costs near high-scoring schools is not much different than property near low-scoring ones, which contributes to low elementary test-score gaps, according to the study.

The study comes from the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, an organization working to provide economic and demographic research on metropolitan areas.

“Utah probably has much less restrictive zoning laws than most states, especially places like New Jersey and Connecticut,” Johnathan Rothwell, Senior Research Analyst for the Metropolitan Policy Program and author of the report, said in an interview with the Deseret News.

Housing in the Provo-Orem area is 1.4 times more expensive near high-performing schools rather than low-performing alternatives compared to the national average of 2.2 times more. That means a low-income family in Provo would have to pay $4,921 more to move closer to a high-scoring school.

This low gap has resulted in only a 14.1 percentile point spread in state-mandated test scores between low-income, which is defined as those who qualify for reduced lunch, and middle/high-income students. That’s lower than the national average of 26 percentage points between low income and high-income students.

The Provo-Orem metro area had the lowest housing-cost gap in the state, and the third lowest in the country, according to the Brookings report.

Already strict zoning laws are becoming more strict in Western states, which prevent low-income students from attending higher-scoring schools in affluent areas, Rothwell said. Utah’s metropolitan regions can still make zoning laws more market-oriented and accommodating of affordable housing in order to lower test score gaps.

Low-income residents in Salt Lake would spend only 1.5 times more, or $4,921, to move near a high-scoring elementary school, The city’s test score gap is 26.2 percentile points, or 0.2 points above the national average. It ranks better than Los Angeles and Bridgeport, Conn., with much larger economic segregation.

Ogden-Clearfield has the tenth lowest housing cost gap, with residents paying 1.6 times more, or $5,684, to move up. The area’s test score gap is only 18.6 percentile points between low- and high-income students.

Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, Conn.’s metropolitan area had the highest housing cost gap, with its residents spending 3.5 times more, or $25,038, to move within the bounds of a high-scoring elementary school. There is a 37.6 percentile point gap between the area’s low- and high-income students.

“Limiting the development of inexpensive housing in affluent neighborhoods and jurisdictions fuels economic and racial segregation and contributes to significant differences in school performance across the metropolitan landscape,” Rothwell said in the report.

Rothwell says looser zoning laws will bring a more economically integrated region.

“People may be concerned that if they relax some of these zoning laws that there will be some kind of flood of poor people coming into their areas,” Rothwell said. “I don’t think that’s really realistic.”

EMAIL: jferguson@desnews.com

TWITTER: @joeyferguson

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