What It Really Means When We Say a Neighborhood Has “Great Schools”

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Credit: Celia Jacobs

I was raised in Mid-City, a neighborhood in central Los Angeles stretching on either side of Crenshaw Boulevard. Compared to both the broader city and the country, it’s considered “highly diverse,” comprised mostly of working and middle class Black, Latinx, and Korean families. While it had convenient strip malls, a buffet of food options, and easy freeway access, it didn’t have “great schools.” According to GreatSchools, the education information service Zillow uses, Los Angeles Senior High School—the public high school in my zip code—rates a three out of 10.

My father, a native Angeleno, grew up in these public schools and knew their strengths and weaknesses. Like many Americans, my parents wanted a challenging, competitive academic education for their children—something they thought the area’s public schools couldn’t give us. So they surveyed their options. They entered us in the close-by magnet school lotteries, but this proved unsuccessful. So, with financial aid’s help, my parents paid for private schools outside the neighborhood—a common solution among the other families I grew up around.

I didn’t necessarily stand out in my neighborhood, but I did throughout my education: I was an obvious minority in a sea of white, largely upper class kids.

For elementary and middle school, my family started our day driving 45 minutes out to the valley, past Beverly Hills, beyond the Hollywood sign, and into Bel Air’s canyons. During high school, I took a 45-minute bus ride to the flat, arid landscape of Studio City. I didn’t necessarily stand out in my neighborhood, but I did throughout my education: I was an obvious minority in a sea of white, largely upper class kids. All that time, the promise of receiving a “better,” college prep-focused education felt like a justifiable trade-off for the cultural familiarity I left behind. Since education is social currency, I didn’t even question the hidden costs.

I appreciate my parents’ sacrifices that allowed me my education. I was (and still am) grateful for the friends made, skills acquired, and crucial lessons learned. But I’ve begun wondering what life would have been like if stronger schools had been available close to home. I’ve started to question why Mid-City schools , like many others, weren’t “great” in the first place:

Public school funding’s history

I’m not the only one questioning this: Zach Wright, an Education Post contributor, taught in Philadelphia schools for more than a decade. The Brooklyn native saw the schools in lower-income neighborhoods that children of color attended were inadequately funded compared to the whiter schools nearby.

“Let’s say I have a child who lives in a zip code in West Philly—that student is allotted roughly $14,000 for her education,” Wright says. “If I go a mile to the right, and I am now in suburban Philly… that same child would get $28,000. And that is based purely based on the wealth of the local property value. What you have there, in my opinion, is a racist system. You have a wealthy community with more funding to educate their already more privileged children.”

The schools Wright worked in not only underserved its students academically, but also couldn’t support the additional needs of its students who were living in poverty. Schools a mile away in better-funded districts, however, had these resources. So Wright started passionately supporting equal education funding, even testifying before Pennsylvania government on its behalf.

While the work of dedicated individuals like Wright is vital, our country’s education system is a carefully-designed, macro institution upheld by powerful governmental bodies.

While the work of dedicated individuals like Wright is vital, our country’s education system is a carefully-designed macro institution upheld by powerful governmental bodies. Its overhaul is simply too much for one person (or community) to bear.

Both local and federal taxes fund American public schools in America, but local property taxes make up nearly half of a district’s budgets. A 2002 article in Educational Leadership explains that schools have been funded this way since the late 19th century, based on the idea that a public school should serve its “small, relatively isolated” community and teach the skills needed to sustain a local economy.

However, as the U.S. further industrialized and major cities became economic hubs, cities started to generate property taxes at a greater rate than in other areas. School funding became lopsided. Then in the 1930s, cities became increasingly segregated. Lenders started “red-lining,” or regulating mortgages in 239 cities using government-surveyed definitions of credit risk. Neighborhoods with low home prices, poor amenities, and large racial and ethic minority populations were marked as “hazardous.” Banks systematically declined mortgage applicants from these areas or tacked on astronomically high interest rates and fees. Fewer homeowners and low home values meant less money from property taxes to fund schools.

Then, post-World War II, white Americans flocked to newly-built suburbs, using VA loans. But because of red-lining and Jim Crow-era laws, banks denied many African American veterans funding. Minority populations were confined to economically-disadvantaged areas without any opportunities to invest in their communities. White Americans, on the other hand, were free to leave diverse urban areas for homogenous suburban neighborhoods and take their property tax dollars with them. This two-decade long exodus known as “white flight” further exacerbated the lopsided, location-dependent districting system already in place. (And in an effort to inextricably link education and wealth, the U.S. government even underwrote white flight from Northern cities like St. Louis and Detroit, exclusively reserving and securing white homebuyers’ loans.)

As suburban parents funneled more money into their public schools, inequality grew. And so did consumer culture‘s rise, bringing with it the idea that a better education was something that money could (and should) buy.

As suburban parents funneled more money into their public schools, inequality grew. And so did consumer culture‘s rise, bringing with it the idea that a better education was something that money could (and should) buy.

Simultaneously, as public schools desegregated post-Brown v. Board of Education and compulsory busing in cities came into play, wealthy white families started taking their children (and support) out of public schools in increasing numbers, choosing instead to send their children to private and parochial schools

The government didn’t really step into address this intentional segregation in real estate until the Fair Housing Act passed as part of the landmark 1968 Civil Rights Act. Under this law, people could not be discriminated against for race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin when renting, buying, or securing home financing.

Real estate’s role

In the 50+ years since, our culture has slowly but surely pulled away from the idea that money should be the only factor in receiving a quality education. A 2019 New York Times poll says 59 percent of Americans support free public college and university tuition. However, segregation’s legacy still fiercely influences public school funding.

The 2019 NAR Home Buyer and Seller Generational Trends report shows homebuyers ages 29 to 53 said school district quality was the fourth most important factor when choosing a neighborhood. For those with kids, school quality is even more important: A 2018 StreetEasy survey found 76 percent of respondents with children said they required or desired a home in their preferred school district. Only 23 percent said it had no impact on where they live.

Though much of the external dialogue around buying a home centers on schooling, the Fair Housing Act forbids real estate agents from discussing this factor with clients.

A real estate agent cannot legally “steer” a buyer, or say, unprovoked, whether a school is “good” or “bad,” or if a home is “good for families.”

A real estate agent cannot legally “steer” a buyer, or say whether a school is “good” or “bad,” or if a home is “good for families.” According to a 2014 Realtor article, “if an agent expresses his or her own positive or negative views about certain communities or schools, the purpose of which is to direct a buyer either towards or away from a community, then that agent may be stating a housing preference based on race or familial status or religion.”

This creates a dilemma: The market knows education is entwined with real estate, yet the industry members cannot directly address it. So agents must either covertly find ways to signal this link to their clients or send them elsewhere for the information.

I spoke with a New York state-licensed real estate agent who wished to remain anonymous as his comments could be taken against the Realtor code of ethics. He said that when clients ask him about schools, he only lists the area schools but recommends a site like Niche for further research.

“I don’t want to be responsible for their children’s future,” he told me.

Technology’s role

Where individuals wash their hands of parenting decisions, tech steps in. Listings on Zillow has a list of zoned schools with a GreatSchools score attached. Sites like Niche rank the “best places to live” in the U.S. and tout a calculated grade for the public schools in the area (test scores account for 60 percent of the score while racial and economic diversity make up 10 percent).

“What we’re really trying to capture is what a place is really like,” says Luke Skurman, Niche’s CEO. “These are multi-year decisions that really have an impact on you.” When Skurman and his team first began developing Niche, they focused on college reviews, but noticed that many review sites focused purely on academics. “We thought it was important to focus on a school holistically,” Skurman says. “[Our rankings] are a combination of hard quantitative data with qualitative insights from people that have lived there and gone to school there.”

In 57 percent of the top schools, the student population was at least 75 percent white.

However, this data can help perpetuate the divide, too. Despite the Fair Housing Act, “great schools” are still wholly white and wealthy. An analysis of U.S. News & World Report’s Best High Schools of 2019 found 46 percent of schools ranked in the upper quartile were located in the suburbs. In 57 percent of the top schools, the student population was at least 75 percent white.

This isn’t surprising: White and wealthy schools will generally take the top ranking because they have the resources to do so. Though these rankings are based on data, the data isn’t objective. They don’t take into account segregation’s lasting effects, which weighs much greater than 10 percent for schools in historically underserved areas. It’s because of segregation that they don’t receive adequate funding to hire teachers, create extracurricular programs, or provide other needed resources to students that would attract wealthy households and their property taxes. So while real estate agents aren’t technically breaking the FHA with this hand-off, they are inadvertently helping to perpetuate it.

The charter school option

Some educators see charter schools as a solution, as they circumvent the districting dilemma. Charters are a relatively new schooling option and offer a more rigorous education but require no tuition dollars from parents. The schools are established with “charters,” which are essentially business plans that detail the school’s future created by independent boards and approved by the state. Charter schools skirt some regulations, but in exchange, they must meet other Department of Education demands. For example, if they do not perform as promised, the state can close the school.

While they are traditionally focused on low-income neighborhoods and communities, they are choice schools, meaning they do not solely serve the area’s residents. A bigger pool of potential students means fiercer competition for limited spots. Most schools, then, operate on a lottery system. Parents can select up to 10 choices (read: locations), and will send their kids to whichever school selects their name. Some kids, then, must commute outside of their neighborhood. Antoinette Kane, a third grade teacher at a charter school in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, says around 75 percent of her students live in the neighborhood, and the rest commute in. However, this isn’t always so difficult:

“Sometimes students’ parents work in Brooklyn, but they live in Queens, or it’s easier for grandparents to pick them up after school, so they go to school closer to where their grandparents live,” Kane says.

Though these students commute like I did, they’re not always traveling where they’re the minority. “Where I work, my charter school is 100 percent children of color, but that’s just because it mirrors the community,” Kane says of her Crown Heights-based school.

Though charter schools seem like great equalizers, as they provide students of any zip code a good, free education, they are often risky endeavors. For example, independent boards can invite problems similar to the ones private companies face. And since they’re an experimental option, if a school shuts down, students have to try getting into another charter school or attend their underperforming local public school. Charter schools’ detractors, too, argue that this particular system’s funds could be better invested into a neighborhood’s public schools.

Parents’ role

Education is paramount in the U.S. Not only does greater educational attainment guarantee a lower unemployment rate and higher salary, but it can also have positive effects on life expectancy. Parents often feel they must seek better education elsewhere—even though they know this individual decision allows inequality to persist.

Take for example, Wright. Once he had his own family, his personal beliefs were tested: His oldest son has special needs that Wright felt his local public schools couldn’t meet. The family surveyed private and parochial schools in the area, but, unlike public schools, privately-funded schools can bypass special needs accommodations under the American with Disabilities Act. So Wright and his family decided they needed to move. After working with a real estate agent and doing their own research to find a better school district for their son, they moved to suburban New Jersey.

“[Real estate agents] know that schools are the primary driver,” Wright says. “Whether or not we think we’re paying for school, we are.” 

“[Real estate agents] know that schools are the primary driver,” Wright says. “Whether or not we think we’re paying for school, we are.” 

Another option

In a 2016 piece for New York Times Magazine, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Brooklyn-based staff writer, recounted why she sent her daughter to a segregated New York City public school once she was old enough.

Saying my child deserved access to “good” public schools felt like implying that children in “bad” schools deserved the schools they got, too,” she wrote about her thinking of the decision. “I understood that so much of school segregation is structural—a result of decades of housing discrimination, of political calculations and the machinations of policy makers, of simple inertia. But I also believed that it is the choices of individual parents that uphold the system, and I was determined not to do what I’d seen so many others do when their values about integration collide with the reality of where to send their own children to school.”

It’s set-up as a prisoner’s dilemma for well-meaning parents at mercy of a deeply unjust system.

Throughout the piece, she explains how she came to understand first-hand how deeply entrenched historical segregation is in schools even today, and how it’s set up as a prisoner’s dilemma for well-meaning parents at the mercy of a deeply unjust system. She urges her readers to think about surrendering some of their advantages for the sake of “true integration, true equality.”

Do I wish I attended my local public school like Hannah-Jones’s daughter? I’m happy with my education, so it’s hard to say. Mid-City didn’t necessarily have “good” schools, but its community still provided me with a “good” education. After all, this experiential enrichment—outside of my formal training—has made me who I am today.

However, I wish no child had to be one of only two black kids in a classroom just to receive a “satisfactory” education. That no child had to see their education as a privilege. And, most importantly, that their education didn’t have to come at another child’s expense. Maybe if enough parents are persuaded by Hannah Jones’ cogent arguments this future—where a great education is a civil right—can be more than a fantasy. I’d like to think that if more people looked beyond their own neighborhoods, we could afford all our children a better future.

Correction: An earlier version of this post mistakenly said that StreetEasy showed qualitative and quantitative information about area schools on every listing. They actually only list the zoned schools. We’ve updated it to be more accurate and regret the error.

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