Struggling Schools, School Choice and the Fear of Gentrification

Part I of this series described how giving families more school options can lead to economic growth, and in part II, I discussed how experts with the same facts can disagree about the nature of a problem based on their lens—thinking of solutions from inside vs. outside schools. In this post, I’ll examine another common question: Should we avoid school choice programs if they risk gentrification?

Gentrification is a word, commonly thrown around as the “big bad” of poor communities, meaning “the process of renovating and improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste.”

Think Fixer Upper with Chip and Joanna Gaines. If you are part of the middle class, this improvement may sound promising, but gentrification can come with negative consequences. The most common consequence being a rise in rent, pricing poor families out of their neighborhoods.

Let me acknowledge up front: My research does suggest that certain school choice programs will make poor areas more attractive to the middle class. So, questions about gentrification are not unreasonable. Let’s analyze this issue more closely.

A critique of my research by education professors, published by a union-linked organization, makes the following criticism:

The [research] ignores many studies that have found negative effects of gentrification, such as displacement, and potential school closure as resident families are “driven out” by higher income families.


Gentrification is a concern of “first impression.” When one first reads about a policy that attracts middle class families to poor neighborhoods, it is a common reaction to ask what happens if the policy is too successful, or in other words, what if the neighborhood gentrifies?

But like many first impressions, there is more here than meets the eye. It is true that gentrification can have negative effects. Improving neighborhoods creates winners and losers. Property owners like rising home values, but renters would rather pay less. Unfortunately, rising rents can lead to displacement of poor people.

Now, let’s move past first impressions and dive into a deeper understanding of this issue. Here is an irrefutable fact about neighborhoods: Struggling schools lower both home prices and rents. But no one, especially not education professors, thinks we should give poor neighborhoods bad schools to keep rent cheap. It is not logical to oppose a policy that improves education just because it will make a neighborhood attractive to the middle class. But that is essentially the argument here. If we are to keep rent low, then we must keep opportunities for quality education out of the area.

Fortunately, better options exist for keeping rent affordable than simply disregarding troubled schools (as it seems these critics might suggest we do). When better educational options lead to neighborhood improvement, we can leave the world of education policy and enter the world of housing policy.


The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has given a lot of thought to solving gentrification issues. See, for example, “Ensuring Equitable Neighborhood Change,” which describes numerous programs aimed at assisting low-income families living in neighborhoods that are progressing.

Here are a few current HUD programs addressing these issues:

  • Rental Assistance
  • Affordable Housing Development Incentives
  • Mixed-Income Development Incentives
  • Housing Choice Voucher Programs

These programs are not perfect, and they are not always implemented optimally. But still, it is better to rely on housing experts, who are focused on making neighborhoods affordable, rather than relying on struggling schools to depress housing costs.

In case I am giving you the mistaken impression that HUD is a savior for the numerous poor people facing displacement, let me point out something that should be obvious: There are very few areas of deep poverty at risk of having too many rich people move into the neighborhood. Instead, many poor urban areas are depopulating.

A journalist for The Atlantic, discussing this same topic, points out a problem considered much worse than gentrification:

“The reality is that the displaced are getting pushed out of working-class neighborhoods that are [already]  ‘good enough’ to attract people and investment, while the poorest and most vulnerable neighborhoods remain mired in persistent poverty and concentrated disadvantage.”

While most current school choice programs, unfortunately, are not designed to fix the brokenness of poor neighborhoods, new strategically designed programs hold promise for improvement.

We should not withhold school choice, or any other anti-poverty programs, from poor neighborhoods due to fear of too much success (gentrification). We don’t withhold food during famines because we worry that overeating leads to diabetes. 



As a final note, gentrification is not viewed as a bad thing by poor people when they are able to remain in revitalizing neighborhoods, which they often can—read here, here and here. Life gets better for them in many ways:

  • better jobs,
  • higher incomes,
  • lower violent crime rates,
  • better options in supermarkets, banks and drug stores,
  • assignment to better public schools
  • and, in fact, better public services in general.

Educators should want these outcomes in poor neighborhoods, and policymakers should endeavor to provide the best education possible to all students, regardless of where they live. When struggling schools create low-rent districts, communities should recognize that this problem stems from a failure of education policy, not an achievement in housing policy.

So why do critics really raise the gentrification issue?

They don’t really believe that bad schools should be used to lower rents, but changes in the status quo make people in control of the current system uncomfortable. Opposing “gentrification” is a tactic for distracting people from thinking about the many effects of struggling schools. But when we have a clearer understanding of gentrification, we can set the record straight.

In the future, when school choice critics voice concerns about gentrification, know that they are hiding the real agenda. The critics don’t really like bad schools, even if struggling schools make housing affordable. They’ve just run out of logical arguments.

Read the first post in this series: Could We Solve Poverty and Pollution with School Choice?

Read the second post in this series: Why Do Experts Disagree on How to Approach Concentrated Poverty and Education?