Thinking Outside The Boundary: GreatSchools Isn’t The Problem

Sep 25, 2020 · 5 min read

By Jennifer Wagner

Mother Jones recently published a story questioning whether GreatSchools, a national nonprofit that rates public PK-12 schools using test scores and other factors, is inadvertently contributing to neighborhood segregation because families are using the website to find homes near highly rated schools that might not be particularly diverse.

GreatSchools partners with a number of real estate websites that publish the ratings alongside other neighborhood factors, including walkability, access to mass transit and solar energy score.

It’s past time to break the connection between housing and schooling.

Let’s be real: For families with kids, nearby school quality historically has driven real estate choices for those who can afford to make that choice. That was the case long before GreatSchools arrived on the scene in the late 1990s.

At EdChoice, we refer to it as school choice the old-fashioned way: Rich people choose to move to “good” districts, leaving lower-income families, especially in communities of color, in chronically underperforming schools that have failed to meet students’ needs for generations.

There are two pull quotes from the Mother Jones story worth dissecting here:

“Schools are not uniformly good or bad. Schools have different strengths and weaknesses.”

Yes! This! It’s inherently why we do what we do in the school choice movement and why we believe in breaking down the barriers that have held families back for generations. A small school might be a slam-dunk for a kid who struggles with anxiety; a big school might provide myriad experiences for a child who has no trouble making new friends and trying new things.

“Schools are not commodities that can be shopped for like cereal.”

This makes for a quippy talking point, but it contradicts the fact that many people actually do shop for schools — and that’s not a bad thing. In fact, if we believe the first quote, we can’t embrace the logic behind the second one.

We trust families to know what’s best for their kids, and we know that not all schools are able to meet all kids’ needs, so we should lean into empowering parents to find what works best.

But that only works if families can actually access that school once they find it — without having to move or pay tuition like folks with means have been doing for decades.

Do we solve this problem by decreasing the amount of information available? By going after By eliminating high-stakes testing?

The thing about systemic reform is that it has to be systemic.

Assigning students to schools based on where they live has always been the flippin’ problem, and it’s taking us way too long to fix it because the system itself is a morass of boundary lines and budgets and apprehensive policymakers and small “p” political fiefdoms.

Private school choice is part of the solution, but we’re not even close to scaling those programs so that funding follows every child. Even though our research often shows available private school seats at the state level, I’d argue we still need to increase the number of schools on the supply side.

Charter schools also are part of the solution, as are the more non-traditional types of schooling we’re seeing more parents embrace during the pandemic.

The systemic reform that policymakers should embrace is the easiest in theory and the most potentially complicated in practice: open enrollment.

I wrote this time last year that tearing down district boundaries could be the “secret sauce” of school choice simply because so many families are in the public system, and that’s unlikely to change in the short-term.

Removing the geographic element attached to the traditional model removes the incentive for families to cloister in certain neighborhoods. It shatters the forced connection between the community you live in and the school you choose for your child.

This week, I sat through Virtual High School Night to check out schools for my daughter, who’s a seventh-grader at a K-8 school. The presenting schools included traditional public schools, charters, private schools in town and boarding schools elsewhere.

One of the schools that’s at the top of her list is the traditional public high school where my dad taught for 30 years. A lot of her friends’ older siblings go there, and she likes what she’s heard.

Potential problem: Neither of her parents lives in the district. Real-life solution: Indiana has an open enrollment law that allows schools to accept students from other districts. The school she’s interested in even made a point in its presentation to say that it has never turned away an out-of-district transfer.

If she winds up selecting that school, no one has to move. She just has to get there every day because there is no transportation for out-of-district students. We can make that happen. (In a competitive move, our zoned district has opened up all four of its high schools to all students so that “students can choose their school based on their career paths and not where they live.” No matter which school you want to attend, the district will make sure there’s a bus to take you there.)

Even though it’s one of the least-discussed choice mechanisms, 47 states and the District of Columbia have some sort of open enrollment policy on the books. Some are better than others, especially when it comes to district participation; it’s hard to break down barriers if you allow the most sought-after districts and schools to opt out.

In my case, whether we pursue a private option or a public one via Indiana’s open enrollment law, it’s a relief to know that we can live in the community we chose and find the right educational environment for the kids. All families should have that opportunity.

This is what you’d find on the Zillow page for my house despite high-quality magnet, charter and private schools nearby.

As we come full circle on the Mother Jones article and the debate about GreatSchools and neighborhood segregation, it’s worth noting that open enrollment opens up an interesting dilemma for Realtors: While it could reduce property values in neighborhoods that are in high demand due to local schools, it might increase values in places buyers previously overlooked or believed they couldn’t stay once they had school-aged children.

As organizations like GreatSchools continue to educate families about local school quality, they might consider incorporating other schooling types and local policies into the analysis. In places where open enrollment, private schools or charters are a possibility, that information should be as readily accessible as a home’s walkability score, giving parents a more complete view of the K-12 landscape as they consider where to live.

If someone looking to buy my house went to Zillow, they’d only see three schools listed — all with low ratings. But if they did a little more research on the neighborhood, they’d find out there’s a nationally acclaimed charter high school three blocks away and almost a dozen highly rated public and non-public K-12 options within a 15-minute drive.

As we have big conversations about dismantling systemic inequality and improving access, it feels like it’s past time for reformers to start thinking outside the boundary.

Jennifer Wagner is a mom, a recovering political hack and the Vice President of Communications for EdChoice, a national nonprofit that supports and promotes universal school choice.