Housing is all about the schools. This created the situation that springtime house hunters face in most areas around Boston.

A little perspective:

In the book The Two Income Trap, one of the ongoing tropes is that the pressure to send one’s children to “good” schools underlies the competition for houses in well-regarded schools systems. Ms Warren and Ms Warren Tyagi explain that women in the workforce increased the spending power of the family. The extra income did not go to runaway spending on clothes and other consumer goods. They say:

…families were swept up in a bidding war, competing furiously with one another for the most important possession a house in a decent school district. As confidence in the school system crumbled, the bidding war for family housing intensified, and parent soon found themselves bidding up the price for other opportunities for their kids, such as s slot in a decent preschool or admission to a good college. Mom’s extra income fit in perfectly, coming at just the right time to give each family extra ammunition to compete in the bidding wars – and to drive up the prices even higher to for the things they all wanted.

I have written about schools on this blog, and I have heard how important schools are. Even for people without children, “everyone knows” that the price of a house depends on the reputation of the school system.

In The Two Income Trap, the authors quote a study that confirms that:

school quality was the single most important determinant of neighborhood prices – more important than racial composition of the neighborhoods, commute, distance, crime rate, or proximity to a hazardous waste site. [Emphasis theirs]

The Two Income Trap authors say the solution to the housing crisis is fixing the school crisis. If the competition for schools was neutralized by more opportunity for education that isn’t tied to house location, then the inflation of “good school” towns would cool down.

Any policy that loosens the ironclad relationship between location-location-location and school-school-school would eliminate the need for parents to pay an inflated price for a home just because it happens to lie within the boundaries of a desirable school district.

 Yes, Ms Warren is our Senator Elizabeth Warren. Do you think that’s a feasible solution? Do you think Ms Warren should take on this one in Congress?

Another problem facing young families is the simple lack of affordable family-sized housing anywhere, not just in the “schools, schools, schools” neighborhoods.  Where there are larger condo units or houses, they are sold to people who have more spending power than many young families.  

So how do you find a good school for your children?

Public information:

The Department of Education publishes district profiles. To open a report card, write the town or district into the box for “Search for your Report Card.” Then use the hyperlinks below that to see the information.

Within this data, you will find information about not only test scores, but stats on the qualifications of the teachers, socio-economic data about the students.

Many, but not all, school districts keep a web page for their school data. Check for one in the towns you are considering. Do a web search for the term “school report card.”

How to use: The raw test scores will be higher in those higher-priced school districts. That’s just the way it is. The public information gives a picture of who the students are, and how they are learning.

Local opinion-makers:

Boston Magazine publishes an annual list of the best schools in the region. Your job is to find the balance between excellence and expense. This list drives perception significantly in our area.

Virtual communities:

Many towns have list-servs (email groups), Facebook pages, and Google groups for parents in the towns in this area. Some towns are more active than others. Find the parent’s list, like this one; I found it by a simple web search on “arlington parents list ma.” Ask pointed questions; get answers.

Like any other virtual community experience, this takes some time. Just like there is always one awful review at Trip Advisor, there will be one miserable parent. You need to ask good questions and you also have to read past the responder’s agenda. You will find the trends, positive and negative, in each town.

Data aggregators:

Niche collect public, plus parent and student opinion information.

Public School Review collects public information and tracks safety issues in schools. Their blog focuses on safety and good parenting.

Discernment: what is important?

Like any other parenting decision, the best school for your child may be the most academic, goal-oriented, high test-scoring high school. Or it may not be. The size of the schools, the number of children in the class, the extra-curricular activities available, may affect your child more than the number of AP offerings in the high school.