We have now spent many decades and uncounted hundreds of billions of dollars trying to attain a single goal: improving our often deficient public schools. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of some and the tax dollars of many, we seem to be even further from our goal than ever—and there are many theories regarding why this is so.
Some claim that problems in our classrooms are a reflection of problems in our society, and this is certainly true at times. Others believe that more money—and all the fun that money can buy—will solve the academic problems endemic in our nation’s schools. We also often hear that our students (thanks to our smothering parenting) simply lack the “grit” necessary for classroom success.
All of these reasons—plus a dozen other I’ve not mentioned—likely play some role in the achievement shortfalls we continue to see across a broad swathe of our nation’s schools. However, I believe the one of the root causes of a great many of the problems in our public schools is not quite what we might expect: our great national obsession with real estate values.
Schools and real estate go hand in hand. In most states we rely on local property taxes to provide much of the funding for our public schools. In addition, the character of the real estate in a community is a reflection of the socio-economic profile of the families served by the area public schools. This seems clear enough.
However, real estate and our driving concern with maintaining its value also plays a major role in perceptions of our public schools—and often acts as a barrier to recognizing the need for the reforms necessary to turn around our country’s failing schools.
First, we need to consider the role that the perceptions of local schools play in establishing residential property values. As any realtor will explain, homes in neighborhoods with “good” public schools sell faster—and at significantly higher prices—than homes where the schools are perceived to be “bad”.
Therefore, any information—standardized test scores in particular—that might call into question the achievement or college readiness of students in a particular school district is actively resisted, and those measures are denigrated by homeowners with a direct financial stake in the reputation of their local schools.
I’ve heard every excuse under the sun to blithely explain away pesky negative data: the students don’t take the tests seriously, the tests don’t measure the “whole” student, the tests are biased, the testing environment was too warm on the test day, the test was scheduled too close to Homecoming Week festivities, etc., etc., etc.
Virtually everyone has a vested interest in singing the praises of their local schools—or at least loudly proclaiming they are making steady improvement by some measure other than those danged test scores. That’s because any decline in real estate values prompted by negative perceptions of the local public schools is going to reduce tax revenues and the pool of public money available to divvy up on local contracts to provide services, construct municipal buildings, grant tax abatements to businesses, and pass out raises to municipal employees.
As a result, we are all deluged with feel-good stories about adorable third graders planting a vegetable garden, the plucky middle school basketball team winning a local tournament, and photogenic high school students volunteering at the local senior center. All of these activities are, of course, wonderful and beneficial in their own ways—but routinely graduating students who are academically strong enough to be college and career ready would be much, much better.
So what’s the bottom line? The magic of real estate means it is well-nigh impossible to have a reasoned discussion about the catastrophic academic shortcomings of so many of our public schools because very few people living in any community around the nation actually have an interest in having that discussion—lest it take money right out of their pockets.
We instead insist that, although educational problems may exist in some awful neighborhood very far away from us, our own schools are excellent, our own students are well prepared for future success—and my own ridiculously overpriced home is worth every penny of the asking price on the offer sheet my real estate agent just handed to you.