Costly homes with failing schools

The title of the Pacific Research Institute’s new book about California middle-class schools encapsulates its entire message — “Not as Good as You Think.” This disturbing warning is supported by a barrage of official statistics showing below-grade scores at California schools that serve “well-off” suburban districts or the most sought-after city neighborhoods.

The PRI study defines a middle-class school as one where less than one-third of the students qualify for California’s free or reduced lunch program. And the grim statewide trend is that nearly 300 affluent-district California public schools — more than one in 10, including dozens of California Distinguished Schools — teach at least one grade where a majority of students score below grade-level proficiency in English and/or mathematics.

Such school failures pepper the entire Bay Area. Worrisome results on the Peninsula are found at:

» The South San Francisco Unified School District, where five schools have multiple grades with a student majority scoring below proficiency on the California Standards Test.

» Both the San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District and the San Mateo Union High School District, which each have two schools with several grades where below-proficiency English and math scores are the majority.

» San Bruno Park Elementary School District, where Parkside Intermediate student majorities scored below proficiency in two English grades and one math grade.

The study lists official median prices for homes in these districts as $750,000 to $850,000. But any Bay Area resident who pays attention to the real estate market would probably agree that only a bargain fixer-upper could be easily obtained at that price, even in today’s slowing sales climate. A more attractive and spacious home in San Mateo or San Francisco counties would more likely cost upward of $1 million.

Thousands of upwardly mobile, double-income California families have stretched themselves to the financial breaking point by purchasing homes far costlier than what they can afford, in the not-always-true belief they are getting their children into “good” schools.

Many Bay Area families “score shop” for homes near schools with better Academic Performance Index aggregate scores, often facing prices $250,000 higher than adjacent areas. San Francisco ranks No. 78 on the Top 100 list of U.S. home foreclosures, so families struggling to make their monthly payments can face serious fiscal risk — especially when today’s stagnant housing market traps them in homes that could only be sold at a loss.

The Pacific Research Institute is a free-market think tank, so its recommended solution to the school/home-price conundrum is universal school choice at all income levels — presumably involving some sort of vouchers. Whether or not you are ready for that approach, “Not as Good as You Think” uncovers an important California problem that middle-class families need to become much more sophisticated about.

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