School Quality and Housing Costs

Thursday’s post “What would an extra $50k a year mean for Jay and Wally’s childhoods?” sparked a terrific discussion in the comments section.  Readers wrote about the choices and tradeoffs their families are considering around where to live, how much money they feel they need to make, and what kinds of childhoods they want for their kids.  For me, receiving so many substantive replies was equivalent to the magic moment in that viral video Caine’s arcade, where the little boy comes back from lunch to find people lined up to play his homemade games.  So thank you Carter, Oonagh, Jill, Jessica, Marc, Amanda, Heather, Sarah, and Karen!

Several commenters made the point that I was undervaluing the degree to which the price of a house is a function of the quality of the school district where it’s located.  Or, as one friend with young kids who recently paid a premium to gain access to a strong public school put it, “People who live in wealthy suburbs with great public schools are essentially paying for private-school tuition.  It just comes bundled with granite countertops and walk-in closets.”

I agree that the cost of housing can’t be written off entirely as a “material” acquisition on par with the type of car you drive and the quality of the pans you cook with.  Which left me curious to find out just how much of the price of a house is determined by the quality of the public schools that serve it.

It turns out to be a hard question to answer.  I read two studies, one based on the real estate market in metro St. Louis and the other based on home prices in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.  Both papers point out that effects of school quality are hard to disentangle from the effects of neighborhood quality: Houses served by good public schools tend to be located in more upscale neighborhoods, making it hard to differentiate the premium you’re paying just for the schools and the premium you’re paying for the right to live within walking distance of a chai latte.

In order to tease these two effects apart, the researchers compare houses of similar quality located just across a school zoning line from each other- the thinking being that the two houses share the same neighborhood at the same time that they’re zoned for different public schools.  They find that housing prices increase 10-15 percent for every standard deviation difference in the quality of the public schools to which those houses are zoned.  The authors of the paper on metro St. Louis further argue that housing prices increase exponentially with the quality of the schools, so that people are paying the greatest premiums, percentage wise, in towns at the top end of the school quality spectrum like Newton, MA (a town which a couple commenters are considering moving into).  The authors wrote,  “As school quality increases, competition from other buyers creates an increasingly tight housing market, because the housing supply in these areas is often very inelastic, as most metropolitan areas have a fixed housing stock in the short run.”

Writing now in more personal terms, I think that where to live when kids hit school-age is one of the hardest and most interesting decisions in the life of a family.  It’s hard because most of us won’t get everything we want- we’ll either stretch our housing budgets, or incur longer than desirable commutes, or trade down in school quality.  And I think it’s a uniquely interesting decision because it forces parents to think about what they value in ways that few other decisions do.  Really everything’s on the table: education, money, daily lifestyle, long term aspirations, the value of diversity.

Caroline and I talk about these issues a lot and we haven’t come to any firm conclusions.  Partly that’s because we’re at the mercy of the academic job market and don’t know which part of the country we’re going to end up settling down in.  I do know that part of me is relieved that Caroline’s career compelled us out of Philadelphia, because I loved the city and would have wanted to stay there, but I have no idea how we would have navigated the schools issue had we still been there when Jay was ready for kindergarten.

The other issue raised in the comments that I wanted to respond to is the question of how important it is for a kid to have the same type of “stuff” that his peers do.  As Jessica wrote, “According to my husband’s philosophy, at least, the $100 backpack is much more important if all of your friends also have the $100 backpack, than if they have the $40 or even the $20 version, and buying that $100 backpack is a small price to pay for a child’s (mental) health and safety.”

No easy answers here, either.  Caroline and I talked about this issue on the drive home this afternoon from Grosse Pointe, where we’d gone for pancakes and a driving tour of the auto industry mansions.  Caroline, who always has a a moderate and level-headed take on these things, thought that it wasn’t a bad thing for a kid to be a little out of step with his peers- so that maybe he gets the backpack but doesn’t get the shoes.  She also said that if you were to give a kid a choice between going to an average high school where he’d been on even footing economically with his peers, and going to a good high school where he’d be economically disadvantaged compared to his peers, most kids would probably choose the better high school even if it meant that as a result they’d feel a little self-conscious about money.  (Caroline added that a kids’ real response to this question would likely be: “Mom and Dad, work harder so I can go to the good school and have the right gear.”)

Finally, I’d just say thank you again to the commenters for propelling this discussion forward.  I find these to be an endlessly interesting and important set of issues.  I will certainly write a lot more about them in the future, and I hope many of you will continue to join me in the process.

Related posts from Growing Sideways

What would an extra $50k a year mean for Jay and Wally’s childhoods?


It takes a village: a roundup of readers’ comments

There have been a lot of wonderful comments left on Growing Sideways recently.  One reader recalled the moment when her mother, dripping wet in a skirted bathing suit, lost her “myth” status.  Another talked about his earliest memories leaving wartime southern Illinois in 1945.  Martha wrote about why it’s important to her that her kids learn to play the piano better than she ever did.  Nick explained why he does Kumon with his daughters. Andrew reflected on how immigration changed his parents’ view of family. My dad told me he’s not sure what’s going on in Ann Arbor, because he never had any trouble getting Jay down to nap.

If Wally looks excited, it's not because I'm dangling a granola bar wrapper in front of his face. It's because I just read him a month's worth of amazing comments on Growing Sideways.

Anya, in response to That thing around the corner

As someone who is at the age of the kids you described, this post was very interesting for me. The last line seems to sum up how I feel when I read your blog: I’m aware that we’re at different stages in our lives, but I see my own future in your posts. It’s something that I’ve had to think about more now that I’ve started college because there’s more of a domino effect. (I need to take these classes because I want this degree, and I need to do well in them because I want to go to graduate school, and with graduate school comes the idea of starting a family.) Your blog makes the idea of being a married-adult-with-children seem less distant and scary.

Marnie, in response to That thing around the corner

I’m so intrigued that we live in a world where the first comment to your post is from a nineteen year old. I was very far away from thinking about the domino effect or being married with children at nineteen. And now I’m twenty-eight and I wish I’d been better counseled about the real world. I am a former teacher as well (in urban schools), and it’s always heartbreaking in some ways to have students illustrate the statistics. A friend’s former student had twins in eighth grade. So many low-income kids never truly get to have a “childhood.” I enjoy your voice and your blog.

John B. in response to That thing around the corner

And, to add a voice form thirty years n the future, nothing prepared me for this either. It’s fun to watch you wander through the minefields I’ve already picked my way through and reliving that period of life again by watching your trials. But every period of life has had the same wonder of exploration. Not enough fires to gather around and listen to the elders any more.

John C. in response to What it might really mean to learn to be a parent

You can’t imagine the depth to which your self-observations reverberated in me as I read your latest on “parenting”. I could change the characters from Jay and Wally to J and D and all the rest of the words would hang perfectly about my neck. Of course I am not that father of so many years ago but now the grandfather to J and D’s children. As I read your piece I found myself musing, “What would I do differently now in those situations that used to get me ‘disproportionately worked up’?” Then it occured to me that these days I tend to start each day self-orienting – checking out the world and my place in it and then consciously deciding how I will deal with what may come. This usually entails a moment of gratitude. That’s all it usually takes – just a moment – just acknowledging how thankful I am… and then the latent anger that has haunted me for so many years is defanged and I am allowed to go about my day easier. I think the Buddhists call it Mindfulness. It doesn’t matter what its name is… it works.

Ingrid in response to Fade Out: What happens to a toddler’s memories?

I often wonder about the capacity of memories at different ages as well. I’m sure there is a brilliant study on the matter. I will say that I still hold memories of my pre-school that I attended at the age of 4. I recall the room set up and the way the play-dough smelled and the names and faces of a few friends that i kept through grade school. I get flashes some days, and will remember a birthday party at the pool when I was three. Of course, I don’t really know if it’s a true memory or a story I told myself from a photo. But i will say that a smell, or a view, or a taste will bring bad some very old memories. So happy for your move, but so sad you wont be on the streets of Philly anymore.

John C. in response to Fade Out: What happens to a toddler’s memories?

I left our wartime home in southern Illinois in the fall of 1945 when I was just 4. We returned each summer for a week or two vacation until I was almost 9. The combination of those visits, the Kodak pictures carefully pasted into the white leather album, and my mother repeating the stories that went with those pictures all laid down new neural pathways thus creating a rich new set of memories. I believe that is what family does. These stories thus become the oral history of my life. These beautiful and insightful stories that you are writing will be the stimuli for Jay to lay down new memories of old expereinces.

Bob in response to Let me wrestle you down to sleep

Not sure what you were doing wrong, Kevin, but when James was with his Grandpa during Hurricane Irene, I got him down for naps each day you and Caroline were gone. I did lay down on the floor in his room, so maybe that helped. Or was it that I fell asleep first? And that is my bigger point. Here is a young boy with an alotted time for napping, and he chooses not to use it. I would love a nap each day, but there is no alotted time.

Anne Sullivan in response to Myth making

I distinctly remember both instances when my mother and my father lost their “myth” status with me. My mom approached my friends and me at the local swimming pool in her old fashioned skirted bathing suit with a rubber swim cap adorned with plastic flowers on her head. She was soaking wet, and as my friends barely suppressed their laughter at the sight, I was mortified. With my dad, the situation was worse—I was working in his office after college, and I overhead a subordinate of his discussing a major mistake my dad had made that cost him a promotion. I enjoyed this post of yours because it reminded me of the times when I did view my parents as heroes, and even though they “fell from grace” a bit, they did provide a lot of comfort over the years with their reassurances that everything would be alright.

Martha in response to Do all parents fall into two categories? One leading sociologist says they do.

I pay for the piano lessons, I pay for the extra spanish tutor, and I make sure my kids never miss Sunday school because I have found that whenever I run into someone who does something very well, or has a passion for a hobby unlike no one else, or their faith is pervasive in their lives, it is because they were exposed in childhood. They didn’t just take a few classes, read a single book, or observe someone else, they dived in deep. I was also a latchkey kid, and my parents cultivated what they could in their spare time, and the outcome was beyond what most would call decent. Nonetheless, my list of mediocre talents is long. So given the good fortune to provide my kids with the opportunity to make their list a little shorter than mine is an opportunity I find difficult to pass up.

Nick in response to Do all parents fall into two categories? One leading sociologist says they do.

I was not cultivated at all. I was a latch-key kid. My parents’ stresses left little room for planning of any kind, and yet I ascribe to them my love of art and knowledge. I am fulfilled enough to wish even some portion of my happiness on my three children, and I wonder deeply what fraction of genetic predisposition and experience, what ratio of ease and strife, what presence and what absence of resources led to my good fortune. If I could reproduce my childhood I do not trust my children would exit it similarly endowed, because I am used to seeing my trajectory as anomalous in a sea of pessimistic demographics. So I pay for the piano lessons, I do the Kumon (at home, I mean), I go to all the museums, stabbing blindly at the hope of passing on the opportunity of happiness, but stabbing nonetheless with vigor and zeal and even a little frightening uncertainty if any of my actions can lead to another’s happiness and virtue. I find it hard to take no action when the stakes are high. Maybe we are each passing on to our kids what we think we should, not only in order to inherit our own happinesses, but also to inherit something better?

Andrew in response to Hit me: Jay, Wally, and The Tree of Life

as the friend in question, i wanted to add some color to the anecdote that might make it seem less odd. my entire family (myself included) immigrated to the US and settled in a fairly homogeneous area, so that comment of his was informed by our collective family experience as outsiders struggling and working to acclimate. i think that the normal “alone-ness” that envelopes the adult lives of children after their parents pass away is multiplied exponentially for immigrant families, particularly for those – like us – who leave behind the entirety of their non-nuclear family support structure in their home country.

the other nuance worth remembering is the vast change in technology over the intervening years. today, when we’re constantly connected by facebook, skype, email and phone to our families around the world, the notion of being alone seems cutely outdated. but i doubt anyone in the 80s and early 90s, let alone my parents, would have predicted these advances, certainly not when it cost dollars per minute to call foreign countries and our phone successfully connected maybe 20% of the time. that shroud of uncertainty over our futures must have been frightening to them.

the contrast is made even more poignant when i think of the stories they heard from their preceding generation, of branches of the family which boarded ships in the early 20th century for far-flung places like brazil, australia and detroit, and which weren’t reunited for 40 or 50 years. this, in turn, almost certainly biased their own expectations and predictions for how isolated we might be as adults.

it all turned out fine in the end, but deliberating about all of this reminded me of something else i loved about the movie, which is that as much as we believe ourselves to be agents of our own fate, our behaviors, fears, aspirations and expectations are vastly and unconsciously influenced by the circumstances of the age during which we live. it seems to me that one of life’s major projects is understanding when one is acting as an individual and when one is acting as the ultimate terminal effector of larger, ageless cosmic processes.