Reverse the effects of education redlining, unleash student potential

District of Columbia Public Schools operates 117 schools, serving more than 51,000 students.

Editor’s note: This commentary from Jonathan Butcher, Will Skillman fellow in education policy at The Heritage Foundation and a reimaginED guest blogger, appeared Wednesday in the Washington Times.

A wide performance gap between white students and black students has persisted in D.C. public schools for generations. Lawmakers can help close this gap today, and at the same time, erase any remaining vestiges of a problem created by their brethren decades ago.

The gap should also be called an “opportunity” gap, not just a performance gap, and federal officials must be part of the solution in the District.

The nation’s capital is one of many urban areas for which federal bureaucrats drew “red lines” on maps in the early 20th century, denoting less-desirable places to live. The federal Home Owners Loan Corporation and Federal Housing Administration based these decisions on poverty levels and, yes, racial makeup.

(This was during President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, an era when racial segregation still plagued American life.) Real estate developers, bankers and HOLC would not build in redlined areas or lend to families who moved there.

Americans have resoundingly rejected segregation both legally and culturally since then, and America is not systemically racist today. But the effects of redlining still affect families’ education opportunities.

At the FHA, it was more than an article of faith; it was a policy that neighborhoods would be undesirable destinations for homebuyers if their schools drew students from disadvantaged backgrounds, a concept that contained more than a hint of racial prejudice. The FHA’s underwriting manual from 1938 explicitly stated that if students from low-income homes are concentrated in certain schools, “the neighborhood under consideration will prove far less stable and desirable.”

Jude Schwalbach’s report for The Heritage Foundation explains that the similarity between the FHA’s map from the 1930s that ranked District neighborhoods and the boundaries of failing public schools is unmistakable — and sad.

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