Part 4: Building, Selling, and Shopping the Lines

Consumerism and Credentialism

Tracing the school-housing relationship across three different Hartford suburbs during the postwar era illustrates its changing forms and growing importance. In West Hartford, real estate agents marketed access to desirable public schools through private home advertisements, and were early adopters of state-generated test score data as a means of selling neighborhood schools without violating fair housing law. In Avon, public school officials openly cooperated with real estate agents to promote the district for mutual benefit, while in nearby Bloomfield, agents clashed with the town officials by scaring and steering away white homeowners, contributing to the collapse of the district’s reputation. The connection between private housing and public schools has helped increase the region’s racial and economic stratification, not just between the city and suburbs, but also between suburbs.

In American Metropolitics, policy analyst Myron Orfield categorizes suburbs into six types, depending on the level of fiscal stress caused by cost of educating their current student population amid the limits of their local tax base. In most states, suburban school districts effectively compete against one another to attract the “best” families for their fiscal health. Conversely, when suburbs enroll larger numbers of students from lower-income families (who tend to be more expensive to educate), fiscal pressures to increase property taxes may drive off established homeowners, particularly when their racial or language background differs from the newest generation of residents.[1] These fiscal stresses became more salient as per pupil school expenditures rose sharply during the postwar era (from about $1,800 inflation-adjusted dollars in 1950 to over $10,000 today in the Hartford region), devouring a larger share of local tax revenues.[2]

Within these shifting metropolitan dynamics are families, with dual identities as property owners and parents. What motivated them to become so deeply intertwined with suburban housing markets? A narrow view of home ownership looks only at property values, with an eye toward the future resale value of an individual home. But a broader perspective recognizes suburban homeownership as a middle-class family strategy for upward mobility, particularly when buying private real estate in a certain suburban area meant buying access into a more desirable public school attendance zone. In this respect, suburban families could justify a higher home mortgage payment as a long-term investment in their children’s schooling, with the promise of increased future status and earnings.

The promise of prosperity through schooling came true for some families during the human capital revolution of the post-war era.[3] Higher-educated families saw returns on their personal investment in education as the U.S. economy shifted from manufacturing to the knowledge sector. In 1967, a household with a bachelor’s degree earned 1.6 times more than one with only some high school. By 2007, that same household earned 2.8 times more (as shown in the chart below)[4]. Educational attainment became an even more reliable strategy for one’s family to get ahead in American society. As overt racial discrimination became less acceptable over time, schooling and housing boundary lines became a more legitimate means for rising American families to defend their privileges and distance themselves from others. Today, 27 percent of all public school parents report having moved to their neighborhood to attend their current school; the rate is significantly higher for college-educated, white suburban parents.[5] While historians Kenneth Jackson and others have demonstrated the non-school factors that fueled suburban growth, we cannot fully explain this history without reference to the interconnected stories of private housing and public schools.

This explains why the history of schooling matters to the new suburban history, and vice versa. For middle-class families with children, buying a home meant more than investing in a piece of real estate. When post-war consumers bought suburban homes, they also purchased access to increasingly valuable public education credentials that dramatically increased the odds of future prosperity for their offspring. During the later decades of the twentieth century, private suburban homeownership—which increasingly guaranteed access to more desirable public schools, and in turn, improved chances of acceptance into a better college—became the most reliable means of transferring middle-class privilege to one’s children. Within this context, many white families became more anxious about any perceived marker of inferiority in their schools, such as the presence of black children, even those living several blocks away, yet within the same attendance zone. Indeed, the educational credentials market is not entirely new, and U.S. historians have identified its origins in late nineteenth century academies and high schools.[6] But the linkage between public school credentials and the private real estate market is a mid-twentieth-century phenomenon in this country, and a deeper understanding of “shopping for schools” offers one step toward bridging the gap between educational and suburban history.


  1. David F. Labaree, The Making of an American High School: The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838-1939 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), and Labaree, How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999); Reed Ueda, Avenues to Adulthood: The Origins of the High School and Social Mobility in an American Suburb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Nancy Beadie, "From Student Markets to Credential Markets: The Creation of the Regents Examination System in New York State, 1864-1890," History of Education Quarterly 39, no. 1 (1999): 1-30.
  2. According to the Connecticut Public Expenditure Council. Local Public School Expenses and State Aid in Connecticut. Hartford: CPEC, 1947, the average per-pupil net expenditure in Hartford County was 9 in 1950, which when adjusted by Sahr's Consumer Price Index conversion factor of 0.111, equals approximately ,700 in 2010.
  3. See literature arising from Gary S. Becker, Human Capital: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis, With Special Reference to Education (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), and historical commentary by John L. Rury, Education and Social Change: Contours in the History of American Schooling, Third Edition (New York: Routledge, 2009); Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, The Race Between Education and Technology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).
  4. U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Historical Income Data [by educational attainment for householders 25 years and over], Tables H-13 and H-14, http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/histinc/inchhdet.html. Data before and after 1991 is not directly comparable due to change in questions. For 1997 and 2007 data points in chart, "Some College" is average of two figures: "Some college, no degree" and "Associates degree" to improve comparability. Also, the 1967 Bachelor's degree figure is interpolated.
  5. U.S. Department of Education, The Condition of Education 2009. Table A-32-3, http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/2009/section4/table-pch-3.asp.
  6. David F. Labaree, The Making of an American High School: The Credentials Market and the Central High School of Philadelphia, 1838-1939 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988), and Labaree, How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning: The Credentials Race in American Education (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999); Reed Ueda, Avenues to Adulthood: The Origins of the High School and Social Mobility in an American Suburb (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987); Nancy Beadie, "From Student Markets to Credential Markets: The Creation of the Regents Examination System in New York State, 1864-1890," History of Education Quarterly 39, no. 1 (1999): 1-30.

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