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Washington Post columnist explains relationship between strong schools and high property values

On Sunday, Jay Matthews of the Washington Post highlighted the cost disparities found among homes existing in areas where the schools are strong and weak.

The irony of Matthews discussing the relationship between property values and school performance is that the columnist assembles an index tracking the best schools, compelling real estate agents to woo potential buyers with promises of high resale values despite the high price up front.

Trying to sell his own home, Matthews considers the implications of allowing buyers to gauge a home’s worth by the strength of nearby schools:

Some say this is partly my fault. I have been ranking the most challenging high schools in America since 1998. I also have a Challenge Index list for every Washington area high school every year. My rankings are at washingtonpost.com/highschoolchallenge.

My wife is concerned that I ranked Whitman only 17th in the region this year, while rival Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School is No. 2. I hastily responded that Whitman is still in the top 1 percent of all U.S. public schools. That’s also what I’m telling potential buyers. What I won’t say is that I think buyers fret too much about the relative strength of local schools. In most of the Washington area, that’s not a problem.

[…]

In Westchester County, N.Y., where I lived at the time, real estate firms paid to print attractive four-page profiles full of test score data distributed by high schools in the best neighborhoods. School district reputations varied widely. One real estate agent calculated that clients who bought homes in one neighborhood were spending 35 to 40 percent less than they would for a comparable house in Bronxville. That is still happening.

The Challenge Index uses a simple formula to predict the college preparedness of graduating students by dividing the number of advanced placement and baccalaureate tests students took by how many seniors completed their studies. The top 20 schools featured on the national list include a handful of charter schools; the percentage of students receiving subsidized lunches ranges from two percent to one hundred.

To qualify for the free lunch program, students must come from households that earn no more than 140 percent of the federal poverty level. For the reduced lunch program, incomes up to 185 percent qualify. For a four-person household, the 100 percent level is set at $22,050.

According to Fairtest.org, scores of seniors who took the SAT in 2009 rose for every $10,000 increase (PDF) in family income, meaning no scores went down from one earning level to a higher one. In that year, seniors averaged an SAT score of 1509. International School in Bellevue, Wash., which ranks 17 on the Challenge Index, averaged an SAT score of 1893 in 2011 with two percent of the student body on a subsidized lunch program. Westlake Academy in Westlake, Texas, averaged an SAT score of 1757, with all of its students reportedly coming from families at or below 185 percent of the poverty level.

Some government programs encourage the community to support measures that improve enrollment and boost student performance. The Investing in Innovation Fund (i3), a grant scheme borne out of President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus package, rewards education-non profits and school consortia with the best proposals for increasing student performance. The dollars awarded are contingent upon a partial match from other donors.

Notably, the Challenge Index does not factor in results from state-issued standardized tests. In his post, Matthews wrote he designed the ranking system to “alert the 90 percent of U.S. schools not on the national list that they need to improve their college prep programs.”

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