Everyone knows the first three rules of real estate: Location, location, location.
Sometimes, “location” refers to the view or the proximity to certain attractions, highways, or major airports. But, more often than not, what people really mean when they say “location” is school ranking. The better the ranking of area schools, the better your home retains its value, and the more your investment will grow. Location, location, location.
School ranking is not new. Long before websites like Greatschools.org made measuring the quality of a school as easy as a mouse-click, realtors educated prospective (white) buyers on which neighborhoods had the best—and worst—schools. Since 1965, the federal government has required that states and districts provide “report cards” assessing student performance and providing information to the public on factors like teacher experience, graduation rates, student absenteeism, and in-school and out-of-school suspensions.
The problem with school rankings, though, is that they are racist and perpetuate economic inequality. They help widen the gap between rich and poor, and they worsen pre-existing inequities in school funding and quality, particularly in historically Black communities.
Many readers may balk at the idea of school rankings being racist. It’s just a ranking of a school’s performance, right? Doesn’t every parent want their child to have the best education possible? If we have the tools to measure school quality, shouldn’t we use them?
School Ranking Doesn’t Consider All Relevant Factors
These days, sites like Greatschools.org do factor in measures like “equity” and “low income students” in addition to standardized test scores, which have been shown to be inherently racist because they are targeted at middle-class white kids. But these criteria measure the children—not the school. Still, why is this a problem? Measure the success of the child, measure the effectiveness of the school. Right?
Nope. And to understand why not, we need to fill in some major gaps in our own education (talking to my fellow white folks now) about the link between racial segregation and oppression, and poverty. The lowest-performing schools are often located in poor, predominantly Black neighborhoods. The temptation for some is to ask what the problem is with the school in that neighborhood or the people who live in that neighborhood.
But these questions ignore the history of how these economically depressed neighborhoods came to exist in the first place. Centuries of segregationist policies meant to literally keep Black people “in their place” forced generation after generation into poverty. These policies didn’t simply shoving Black people aside; they also systematically eroded these communities’ hope about what was achievable in a white-supremacist world.
Redlining has become a buzzword lately, used by white folks like myself to try desperately to get other white folks to accept the reality of systemic racism. But, my friends, we have so, so much more to learn. Redlining is the teeniest, tiniest tip of the iceberg. Residential segregation and economic oppression was enforced by so many more policies than just redlining.
After World War II, with the New Deal and its policies that were meant to assist with a housing shortage, the federal government itself explicitly segregated public housing by race. This was across the country, by the way, not just in the South.
As housing supply increased, the federal government stepped in yet again to assist with relocating whites—and only whites—to the more spacious, more comfortable, more promising middle class suburbs. This was not accidental; not a mere overlooking of Black folks due to interpersonal racism by individual whites who worked in real estate. It was federal policy. The Federal Housing and Veterans Administrations contracted builders to construct homes, offering loan guarantees for said homes, but only under condition that no sales be made to Black people, and on top of that, each home deed had to include an “incompatible racial element.” In other words, our own federal government put it in writing that it was prohibited to sell nice middle class homes to Black people.
Our government also made it extremely difficult for Black folks to find financial security in their jobs. Policies put into place under president Woodrow Wilson prohibited Black people from holding a supervisory role over white people. The “glass ceiling” sat directly on top of their heads. Black folks were not even permitted to join white unions. They could form their own, but any grievances they had were ignored.
For generations spanning centuries, Black people were shoved aside, stolen from, and offered scraps, and then accused of being lazy criminals lacking in ambition.
This is all horrific and shameful, but what does it have to do with school rankings? Well, when we “rank” a struggling school located in a historically high-poverty neighborhood—especially ones in predominantly Black neighborhoods created via segregation and redlining—we are measuring the effects of generations of oppression. We are measuring a lack of access to routine preventative healthcare. We are measuring inadequate housing, where some children may not have a quiet place to study or may not have a parent immediately available to assist with homework. We are measuring the results of undertrained and underpaid teachers. We are measuring a lack of after-school and summer activities, financial instability, lower rates of literacy, and fewer family resources (middle class and wealthy folks can hire a tutor when their child struggles in school). We are measuring the academic performance of children who have nowhere close to the same opportunities and support as the children from the white-picket-fence suburbs on the other side of town.
We point at schools in low-income Black neighborhoods and accuse them of failing without taking responsibility for the conditions we created that put up so many barriers to achievement for the people who live there.
Add to all of this the fact that school rankings serve only to widen the gap between socioeconomic classes: Studies have shown that racial and socioeconomic integration has huge cognitive benefits for all kids. But neighborhoods with highly ranked schools experience ever-increasing real estate prices, effectively locking out lower socioeconomic demographics, a significant percentage of whom are Black, from attending those highly ranked schools. Conversely, when a school is given a low ranking, homebuyers avoid that area, causing home values to drop further, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
When School Ranking Affects Home Values, It Also Affects Schools’ Funding
Schools receive very little funding from the federal government, with only about 10 percent of the budget coming from federal dollars. The vast majority of funding for education comes from real estate taxes. There are programs that exist to help even out this difference, like Title I, which directs additional funding to low-income students. And most states do have systems in place to close gaps in funding left by deficits in property taxes.
However, if poor children get the same as or even slightly more funding than non-poor children, what does that mean in terms of outcome? There is a difference between equality and equity. Children attending schools in neighborhoods that have been oppressed for generations need more funding than their wealthy white counterparts whose parents can afford tutors and piano lessons and competitive sports. And these children deserve to be taught by the same highly trained teachers—the ones with master’s degrees—who teach in the wealthier school districts.
Choice schools are often seen as the solution for economic and racial desegregation, but too often their design selects for well-off families who have the time and resources to provide the transportation, volunteer hours, and academic assistance that choice schools require. Households where both parents work out of the home, or where a single parent is already stretched to their limit, are unable to meet those kinds of demands.
School ranking unquestionably perpetuates classism and racism. But is the solution to stop evaluating schools altogether?
Well, I am no policy expert. However, the more I learn, the more clear it becomes that we have massive inequities that need to be addressed in this country, starting with education. We—white people—created this dynamic, and we need to give back what we took away for so many generations. I don’t disagree with school rankings as a rule, but I do disagree with how they are used. School rankings shouldn’t be used as a tool to decide where to buy real estate. They should be used to find out which communities need the most help, and then give it to them.
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