View Ridge Elementary is one of Seattle’s highest-rated public elementary schools. Eighty-five percent of View Ridge students demonstrate or exceed grade-level proficiency on math and English standardized tests, well above the state average of 55 percent. But despite being a public school, it tends to be expensive to attend View Ridge—prohibitively so. There’s a structural reason for this: The city has zoned 93 percent of the school’s attendance area single-family zoning. Unless a family is wealthy enough to afford a house in the neighborhood, where home prices average $850,000, or lucky enough to find an affordable rental (only a quarter of dwellings in the surrounding census tract are renter-occupied, and rents average $3,000 per month), the chances of attending this school rest on the whim of the district lottery via the open enrollment process. This school year (2016-2017) just four out-of-area students won admission to View Ridge, and all of them already had siblings attending the school.

The story of View Ridge is not uncommon in Cascadia’s largest city, nor in other cities across the region. Though Seattle boasts many high-performing public elementaries, most of them sit in the city’s most expensive and restrictive residential neighborhoods—places where zoning regulations prohibit nearly any housing that isn’t a single-family, detached structure. On average, single-family zoning covers 72 percent of land in attendance areas of Seattle’s 13 top-rated, non-option, public elementaries. (The city has 16 schools that received a perfect 10 score on the GreatSchools rating system. Three of these schools are option schools which don’t have typical attendance areas and so these are excluded from this calculation.)

When communities impose this kind of restrictive zoning pattern, it results in only a small slice of the city’s families being able to afford homes within most of the top schools’ attendance zones. Housing prices average over 20 percent more in neighborhoods surrounding the city’s top 16 elementary schools—all those that received a 10, the highest score possible, on the GreatSchools rating system—than in the city as a whole. In addition, these neighborhoods offer a lower proportion of rental units than the city average. And, in many cases, this cycle reinforces itself: Wealthier neighborhoods pour private funding into their public schools via PTAs and other fundraising, paying for things like added tutors, smaller class sizes, and after school enrichment programs. These private dollars likely boost school performance and in turn, the presence of a top ranked school further boosts real estate prices in the vicinity.

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Originally written by Margaret Morales in Sightline Institute