School quality by zipcode

I recently read this opinion piece on and it really hit home. (It’s a great and well-written piece and I highly recommend the read). A quick summary is that the head of DC Public Schools used his position to manipulate the student lottery and confirm his daughter a spot in a higher performing and better perceived public school (as opposed to the neighborhood school she was supposed to attend). The author explores enrollment practices in DC and how real estate and quality schools are intrinsically tied. At one point, he questions, “Why is this? Why is money — specifically, money spent in the real estate market — the only form of privilege we allow free rein when it comes to accessing high-quality schools?” He responds, “Partly, it’s because the real estate market provides a patina of respectability on privilege. Presumably the wealthy have “earned” their resources through their diligence and hard work and “deserve” the rewards — including automatic access to great schools. Real estate in expensive neighborhoods with guaranteed entry to good schools is just another of the benefits of bootstrapping your way up the American socioeconomic ladder.”

This is not an issue isolated to DC. It happens all over the country —  in the suburbs, in big cities, and even in some more rural areas. Good schools drive up real estate prices and can often lead to housing shortages, and especially affordable housing shortages within the catchement area of a “good” school. Families with means will do whatever it takes to ensure their students attend those “good” schools – including moving across town or to a nearby surrounding town. Now, here lie several issues.

  • A zipcode should not determine the future educational or life opportunities for a child. All schools should provide students with equitable access to academic, extracurricular, and social programs. Equitable does not mean equal, some students require additional supports and some students are ready for enriched opportunities as well. Until school districts are able eliminate low-performing schools, there will always be the good and the bad schools. Attempts at bussing have created their own share of issues (including decreased parent/family engagement, long transit times for kids, and increased transportation costs for districts).
  • And a bigger philosophical question – Beyond ensuring that students receive appropriate academic growth and opportunities, what constitutes a good school? Across the country accountability indexes and report cards are just starting to quantify the value of other academic and social factors (besides the percent of students proficient in an academic area). But, we are still a long way away from being able to really quantify the value of a school – Do the students feel safe? Do the students feel at least one adult cares about them? Is the student population diverse (culturally, ethnically, linguistically, socio-economic, religious)? Is diversity valued? Do the students have fun and are they engaged while learning? Are the students building life skills? Is creativity valued? Do the students have a balanced life?

Often times it takes a few years of improved academic performance and a positive learning environment for the community perceptions of a school to change. Which means it takes a few years for local real estate prices to increase, and thus starting the cycle again.

This article struck me particularly hard as the district I live in is currently fighting for an additional $4M to fund our proposed education budget. At a recent council meeting, taxpayer after taxpayer (mostly parents) identified how much they care about this city, why they chose to live here (diversity was frequently cited), the great programs and learning going on in their schools, but how much they struggle with the annual battle to fight for funding from the state and the city. Many of these outspoken families are the ones who have the means to move just a few miles over to a competing town with “better” schools. If these families leave, what does that mean for the families of students who are unable to move?

A healthy school district would include magnet options for some students and families who aspire for specialized programs or approaches, in addition to strong neighborhood schools. In effect, students have choices and all students have access to a high quality education, regardless of their home address. Until all schools perform at a level deemed satisfactory, the adults with means or with power will continue to game the process for their children. Changing the rules isn’t going to fix the problem. Instead, we have to change the whole system.


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