A first-grade class of African American and white schoolchildren sit on the floor at Albemarle Road Elementary School, Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1973. (Photo: Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress)

De jure segregation was banned many years ago. Yet we continue to be complicit with its practice by upholding housing and educational policies that deny families access to equitable resources and opportunities. This year, the pandemic confirmed the devastating effects our collective inaction on both residential and school segregation has had, specifically for low-income students of color and their families.

The Education Trust estimated that roughly two-thirds of Black and Hispanic students live in school districts where students would learn remotely this school year. In contrast, 70 percent of white students live in districts where students would spend some time inside school classrooms. 

These varying school plans become especially worrying when looking at the digital divide between districts. In a study of Gateway City families with student-aged children, MassInc found that nearly 30,000 households did not have a laptop or desktop computer, while 23,000 households did not have Internet or Wi-Fi. Less access to online learning will lead to lower educational performances and a widening student achievement gap.

School reforms alone will not change these persistent inequalities. Almost a year after we passed the Student Opportunity Act, an analysis by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce found that the wealthiest school districts would receive hundreds of millions in Chapter 70 education funding even when they could afford to operate with little to no state aid. This inequitable allocation of finances affects our Black and Latinx students who could use these resources to pay for technology. 

A report by the UCLA Civil Rights Project also found the share of intensely segregated minority students – where there is 90 percent to 100 percent nonwhite student enrollment – has more than tripled, to 18.2 percent in 2016 from 5.7 percent in 1988. Historically, there are also high concentrations of low-income students at these segregated minority schools. This highlights how many families of color have no choice but to enroll their children in school districts that serve primarily Black and Latinx communities. Unfortunately, these schools are severely underfunded while also having the students with the greatest needs. 

The pandemic’s disproportionate impact on students of color underscores the importance of increasing families’ choices for housing and education. Tackling school segregation – and providing equitable access to student resources – requires addressing the commonwealth’s history of housing segregation. 

Published last year in Boston magazine, “How Has Boston Gotten Away with Being Segregated for So Long?” noted that approximately two-thirds of Boston’s Black residents still live in Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan and cited 2017 data finding 61 of the 147 municipalities making up Greater Boston are at least 90 percent white. Deep roots of segregation remain between cities and their more affluent suburbs as well as racial divides between neighborhoods in the same city.

This is no accident. The Commonwealth Fault Lines study by Policy for Progress and EdBuild noted that “segregating town boundaries harden segregation by doubling as school district boundaries, concentrating educational opportunity in patterns consistent with Massachusetts’ long history of residential segregation.” Municipalities control local zoning and permitting for new housing. They also control which schools a majority of students attend. The results often perpetuate segregation.

The most effective solution to address both of these issues is through, comprehensive zoning reform and enforcement of fair housing laws on the state and local levels. 

Thankfully, many critical reforms – including Housing Choice and multifamily zoning requirements for communities with MBTA stations – were  passed through an Economic Development bill this year. Thanks to Gov. Charlie Baker, House Speaker Ron Mariano, Senate President Karen Spilka, state Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, state Sen. Eric Lesser, other members of the Economic Development bill conference committee, Housing Committee chairs state Reps. Kevin Honan and state Sen. Brendan Crighton and the Legislature for leadership on these issues.

Housing choice and multifamily zoning for MBTA communities are necessary first steps, but additional reforms are needed to end deep-rooted segregation. First, we need to increase overall housing production by removing restrictive zoning barriers and creating innovative land-use solutions. Second, we must prohibit exclusionary zoning and permitting that perpetuates segregation. Third, we need to establish state and local fair housing and disparate impact standards that create inclusive communities and protect people against housing discrimination. 

Prioritizing legislation this session that removes barriers and creates protections for families are not about putting the housing burden on any one community. These reforms will allow communities to do their part in meeting the state’s goal of building 135,000 more units by 2025. 

More homes in communities across the state mean more positive outcomes for families, students and the community at large. Homeownership and school resources can have positive generational effects on families’ health and financial well-being. In addition, communities and classrooms will become accustomed to diversity and a culture of understanding, which can lower the presence of racism and racial violence over time.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed many of the deeply rooted inequities in our housing and education systems. Housing and education advocates must lean on each other’s expertise to tackle the issue of integration because desegregating schools requires desegregating neighborhoods.  

We are at a critical moment where we can either choose to address segregation now or we can choose to watch housing and education disparities widen as a result of it. 


Ryan Dominguez is senior policy analyst at the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association in Boston, a master of public policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and a Cambridge resident.

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