How Much Is That Neighborhood School Costing You?

Earlier this month I wrote about the value of teaching credentials and whether an instructor in a public or private school was likely to be more effective on the strength of having them. The implication was that parents may be putting too much credence in this symbol and relying too much on others for the education of their children, a task for which they are more qualified than they may be ready to admit.

This time, the subject is schools and the learning that's supposed to be going on inside them; and I was compelled to write by the news of a just-released publication from a think tank in California, the Pacific Research Institute. Their report is titled "Not as Good as You Think: Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice" and is available on the web.

My regular job is that of a recruiter. I help businesses staff positions in manufacturing plants throughout the United States. Some "kiddingly" refer to what I do as headhunting. Because a change of a job often requires a change of address or a move to another town, I've listened to a lot of reluctant candidates. People don't like change.

When a family contemplates a move, one of the first questions that pops up is "What are the schools like?" And it's not just a question a mother asks. Some highlights of conversations with potential job candidates stand out in my memory and have made me aware of subtle, local differences in various regions throughout the U.S.

A move to the Milwaukee area might have brought a higher gross income to a welding engineer, but in order to get his kids into the "good" schools west of the urban center, the family was likely to pay three times the property tax for relatively the same property nearer the lake in Port Washington. And the purchase price out west was higher, too. But that's where the "good" schools were.

Alcoa Aluminum has a large manufacturing center near Knoxville, Tennessee. Over the years I've talked with individuals concerning job opportunities at the company and the conversation usually gets around to where they'd live. Due to its reputation for "good" schools, a town to the south called Maryville was the neighborhood of choice for years. But just last year a fellow who took a job in Knoxville informed me that real estate developments west of town had increased his family's choices. Harriman had "great" schools but the house they had to buy in order to enroll cost over $400,000.

 These kinds of examples are repeated throughout the country, and that's the point of Pacific Research Institute's report, although it concentrates on California. But PRI isn't the only one noticing the change in the way middle class families spend their housing money these days.

In 2003, a law professor at Harvard University named Elizabeth Warren published a book she had written with her health-care consultant daughter titled The Two Income Trap. Professor Warren tells me that the book started taking form in 2001 when her daughter gave birth to her first grandchild and the first-time grandmother began reflecting on the big changes that had occurred in our society between then and the birth of her daughter thirty years earlier. So many things had changed within the social network. And the more they got involved in their look at middle class couples, divorce, and financial struggles, the more she began to be "deeply worried" about our families; and the more she began to see aspects of the culture that she terms "anti-child."

Readers should know that I was struck in my impression of the articles about and reviews of this book as being anti-child themselves. That's why I spoke with Professor Warren directly. It turns out that it was simply a case of reviewers from such media as Time, The New Yorker and other secular publications focusing on a single observation in the book and making it the primary aspect of their summary: That statistics indicate that parents had been more prone to financial crisis than childless couples. That reality came out as if to suggest that the path to financial stability was a childless life. You can understand my concern with such a conclusion.

The Warren points are made more relevant to schools and school choice in the PRI study. Because it is undeniable in my opinion that we in the striving middle class of American society do want the best for our kids, and do want to raise them in safe neighborhoods and send them to schools where they will learn and advance, and have a virtuous future.

But we may be spending our money for housing in a way that doesn't get us where we think we want to go. We may be deluding ourselves, listening to false messages and, therefore, headed for disappointment.

According to Warren, the ranks of "house-poor" families, who spend more than 35 percent of their incomes on housing have quadrupled in just one generation. That's because "when a family buys a house, it buys much more than shelter from the rain. It also buys a public-school system." Warren's research is quoted in the PRI study, with several examples of families that went to extraordinary lengths to access a school district by moving to affluent suburbs and paying exorbitant prices for real estate.

Adding insult to economic injury is the ruse and the fraud that constitutes the performance records of the schools in affluent neighborhoods that parents are so desperate to have their kids attend. Some examples near where I live in California take your breath away. In Newport Beach, a tony bedroom community with housing prices averaging well over $1 million, one of the two public high schools within view of the beach had "an unimpressive 52% of its 11th graders … at or above the proficient level on the English CST, and an even worse 24% scored college ready on the English EAP." Yet as PRI points out, the school was a 2005 California Distinguished School.

Now, just because you live in another state, don't think you can be smug. While individual parents typically are likely to give their own schools a "B," their opinion of the national scene (well-verified by an objective review of the performance records) is that public schools in this country are failing us.

Through the experience of my business calls, I would say that it seems that many of the suburban housing developments across the country have settled on an average price for new homes in the $350,000 range. That's likely what it takes to subdivide and build the school buildings that municipalities often require as the trade-off for permission to develop the land, and was what a plant manager who recently relocated to San Antonio reported. Yet these prices are often more than families — even when both parents are working — can afford; and foreclosure is becoming an ever more common occurrence with Florida, New York and Texas close behind California.

The Wall Street Journal referred to the PRI study in an October 24 Opinion Page editorial titled "Worse Than You Think," in which PRI's Lance Izumi is quoted summing up the main purpose of their work:

Many middle-class parents don't think they have a stake in the school-choice debate. They assume their schools are doing better than they are…. When you show people how their schools aren't doing so well, how they're not getting the bang for their buck, they can begin to see how the debate over school choice affects them.

In my novel ReEnchantment, a family relocates to California when the father accepts a promotion with his company. As they settle into the new neighborhood, the mother and dad start noticing things going on at the schools that hadn't caught their attention in Nebraska. Change often focuses our senses. Ultimately the parents decide to school their son at home.

All parents have a stake in what their kids are taught and by whom. Maybe it's time for some of us to quit fooling ourselves about the kind of education our kids are getting at public schools just because friends tell us they're "good schools." Maybe we all need to look at the test scores, the level of preparation and readiness for higher education or the job market; and start demanding school-choice for every family that wants it. 

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  • Guest

    School choice is only a patch on a huge problem. Instead of running away from public schools where the majority of our Catholic children are being educated why don't we start to take them back from the groups that are experimenting in eductational methods and the agenda driven groups who are seaking to indoctrinate? As Catholics all we seem to be able to do is run away from public school instead of caring about all the children in our parishes. It is sad because even if you get the choice what parish school is going to be able to house all the Catholic children from their public school district in the parish school? It can't happen so some children will still be abandoned in public school. Do we as a Church care enough to start to be active in the desisions made for our parish children  and our community children attending public schools or is it business as usual- run away and homeschool or take refuge in a private school?

  • Guest

    We do not need to think outside the box…… we need a whole new box!

    Let's all ask the question never asked: Why are elementary and secondary schools a socialized industry? I am against socialized medicine, socialized indistry, socialized banking and finance. Why, in the name of sanity, should I be for any socialized education.

    In fact, before 1840 in this country there were no public schools. Up until then, elementary and secondary education was the responsibility of parents or groups of parents (like our home schooling co-ops) or voluntary associations such as churches or community groups.

    End the virtual state monopoly on education and throw it back to parental responsibility.


  • Guest


    If our Catholic parish schools in southern California were populated with kids whose families were getting a voucher due to a school choice initiative — the kind that have been turned down by voters two times due to aggressive campaigns by teacher's unions — and those kids and their families were standing at the gates of a parish school with the funds needed to pay for the cost of that Catholic school education, the schools would find the space for them. The diocesan department would arrange for temp. buildings; we'd convert unused storefronts as happens in many cities; we'd build or open up schools closed for lack of money. So don't dispair about Catholics free to choose and free to shop with the tax funds returned to them in equity. And in the meantime don't characterize a parent's decision to home school or enroll in some private academy as running away when it's only the exercise of a free choice. Rejoice that there is that freedom.
    And do get busy. Take back those "public" schools. Last time I checked, they were supposed to be for all. And you're wrong about school choice being a patch. Choice is everything.
  • Guest

    Well I am in southern California too, Ken. I would say that for 95% of our diocesan elementary and 99% of our Catholic High Schools, I would not endanger the faith of my children by sending them to these schools. It doesn't matter if it were free or even if they paid me to send my kids there.

    I would be derelict in my duty as a Catholic parent if I exposed these innocent ones to the untruths and watered down "Catholic" education available.

  • Guest

    And that's your choice to make. I do think that your percentages are a little too high. Even with the "high schools" which many prefer to call "prep" schools, 99 out of 100 ignores some fine efforts, albeit in many cases managed by religious orders and only indirectly by bishops.

    My response to Claire was to her words to the effect that faced with increased enrollments, we couldn't manage. I'd take a "problem" like that anytime. 
  • Guest

    We need to make sure that we do not succumb to the socialist mindset that expects big institutions to solve all of our problems – including raising our children.  The Church is very clear in the teaching that parents are the primary educators.  It is also clear that we should not fear using schools to help train our children.  The mistake is when we buy the line that schools and other institutions are better capable of making decisions then the family. 


    The family is primary.  Strong families make strong societies.  Strong  schools can help a society, but the socialist mindset is to build strong schools in order to indoctrinate.  Never expect or allow a school to be anything other than a school.  Schools are incapable of solving societies ills.

  • Guest

    "Run away and homeschool" – really?  As a homeschooler, former Catholic school student, and former public school student I hardly think I have "run away"…  it is the most difficult and and self- sacrificing choice we could have made for our family.  I think REBEL and homeschool would be a better description… a grass roots, take the situation into your own hands choice…  Homeschooling can make a strong family – strong families make a strong society…  strong Catholic homeschoolers can make strong Catholics .  I think the author of this article was cautioning parents that by thinking they are spending $X for a house in a "good" neighborhood with "good" schools are not getting what they think they are paying for.. they need to be on guard and not sit back… I think society and the school system encourages the parents to let the schools do all the "work" = character education, sex education, book learning etc…

  • Guest

    Great points, Greg!  We live in an affordable area of a relatively affluent KC suburb with "good schools."  After weighing our options carefully, we decided that homeschooling would be best for our family.  We certainly don't see ourselves as running away–our children have friends in other school situations, too.  We just knew that in order for our children to be prepared to go out into the world, they needed to be properly formed and well-educated; and of the available options, homeschooling seemed most appropriate for us.  We are so thankful for the freedom to choose, although a school choice initiative that includes homeschooling (classified as a non-accredited private school in Kansas) would make our choice a more affordable one.

    Suzanne Andrews

  • Guest

    I do not believe that Catholic Schools are all they presented to be.  An example:  this weekend The Seattle Times included a special section regarding college prep and admissions.  One of the young women featured graduated from Holy Names Academy and Seattle University (with those credentials, one would assume she also went to a Catholic elementary school).  She works for (ta da) Planned Parenthood.  Great values that Catholic education imparted…. 


  • Guest

    I think it's admirable to suggest that we "take back the schools."  However, I have six children to raise NOW–I don't have time to wait for them to improve.  We have to recognize the times we live in and make choices that are right for our own families in the places God has placed us.

    St. Anthony of the Desert (father of monasticism) was homeschooled because his parents didn't want him taught in the local schools.  They felt his faith would be compromised.  They were also faced with a pagan society in decline where the gov't was the central deciding factor in the education of children.  We are there as well and we have also decided that the schools available are not going to build our children spiritually.

    For those called to the fight for the public and Catholic schools–may God bless their efforts!  But let's support each family in their decision and recognize that parents are first responsible for their own kids.  If there is time and energy after that for other children, then do whatever the Lord leads you to do.