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New Zoning Reform Tied to School Integration

New zoning reforms that make it easier to secure approval for housing development at the local level could also assist broader efforts to better integrate Massachusetts schools, experts said Tuesday.

Warning that some Bay State schools remain deeply segregated along race and class lines, speakers including Black and Latino Legislative Caucus Chair Rep. Chynah Tyler touted a provision signed into law this month as an important tool to unwind years of separation.

Tyler said during a panel discussion on school segregation that reshaping districts to be more diverse and representative will require an effort that also focuses on other community factors such as affordability.

"There are some serious issues around access to good schools, particularly for Black, Latino and students of color," she said. "From a legislative perspective, that issue is mostly centered around housing. We need to address how we define affordability because we have a wide income inequality gap here in Massachusetts and how we calculate affordability, which is an average, not actually a median number."

As part of an economic development bill, the Legislature approved a so-called "housing choice" provision reducing the local vote needed for zoning changes from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority.

Gov. Charlie Baker and others have been pushing for the update for years, arguing that it could help spur faster development of new residential properties by reducing the obstacles to securing project approval.

Tyler, one of the panelists hosted by Policy for Progress and MassINC, said the zoning reform also "works to combat the intentional policies that prevent affordable housing production and ultimately perpetuate segregation of schools."

"Because we have a wide income inequality gap here in Massachusetts where Black, Latino and students of color are at the lower end of this threshold, it literally excludes families from having access to better schools," she said. "This is a tool we definitely need in our toolbox to begin the desegregation of schools."

The Policy for Progress group published a report last month highlighting five pairs of neighboring districts — Boston and Needham, Brockton and Abington, Springfield and Longmeadow, Lawrence and Andover, and Worcester and Shrewsbury — as significant examples of school segregation in Massachusetts.

In Springfield, where 90% of residents are nonwhite, more than a third of schools are underperforming, according to the report. Neighboring Longmeadow, which has a wealthier population that is 78% white, has no underperforming schools, authors found.

MassINC Research Director Ben Forman described the zoning reform as an "incredible" achievement. A section of state law often referred to as Chapter 40B requires communities to make at least 10% of their housing stock affordable, and while Forman said that has helped reduce segregation, it has worked "only marginally."

"Ten percent of the Massachusetts population lives below poverty, so in this expensive housing market, the share that needs affordable housing is probably 20, 30, 40%," Forman said. "If 10% is the goal, we're going to be creating segregation, de facto, when income is so highly correlated with race."

Like Tyler, Eastern Bank Charitable Foundation Fellow Turahn Dorsey argued that addressing the gaps between districts will require a multifaceted approach that targets other social and economic factors.

"This is probably even more about housing, urban mobility and employment than it may be the levers that we have in the schools and in districts to address inclusion and integration," Dorsey said. "We've got to work in some of these other policy areas to really address these things."

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