From the 1980s to the present, the process of “shopping for schools” in suburbs like West Hartford became more commonplace, even as they took on a different form. Rather than directly advertising access to specific public schools in local newspaper, realtors and homebuyers began to communicate through the legally sanctioned vocabulary of statewide standardized test scores. Of course, testing itself was not new. Generations of students had endured standardized assessments since the Progressive era. But after the 1980s, state and federal politics of school accountability heightened both public awareness of and access to school-level test scores. Private real estate interests embraced the testing movement as an acceptable means of communicating with consumers about how to compare the quality of one neighborhood school over another. In the minds of real estate agents, providing objective school data did not violate fair housing law and its restrictions on what they could say about the qualities of a neighborhood. Instead, real estate agents could now disseminate school-level data, because that was exactly what the state government was doing.
In West Hartford during the early 1970s, prior to the current school accountability movement, individual school test scores were not nearly as accessible as they have become today. For example, when a local parent inquired about school test scores in 1973, the West Hartford Board of Education unanimously reaffirmed its policy of “not releasing school scores on a town-wide basis.” Instead, the district provided data quietly, to individual parents who requested it directly from the superintendent’s office. But even for consumers who took the initiative and successfully obtained local test score results, the data were not comparable with other districts, each of which used their own preferred type of tests. A decade later in 1985, the state legislature established its first standardized exam, the Connecticut Mastery Test, for 4th, 6th, and 8th grade students. Nevertheless, Connecticut lacked a uniform reporting system to disseminate results in the public domain for seven more years. Students took standardized tests, but it was extremely difficult for ordinary citizens to compare results in meaningful ways. The politics of public school accountability had not yet taken hold.
In the meantime, private real estate interests stepped in to feed the data-hungry market of prospective suburban homebuyers. One of the pioneers was Neil Rosen, a former schoolteacher who in 1989 created the National School Reporting Services, Inc., based in Greenwich, Connecticut. Since school quality and real estate values were directly linked, he reasoned, prospective homebuyers needed reliable information to make worthwhile investments, and real estate agents were the crucial link. Four years later, Rosen and his staff of twenty researchers collected and sold packaged data about school performance, curriculum, and extracurricular activities to about 5,000 real estate agents along the East Coast. Suburban real estate firms subscribed to Rosen’s service for $395 annually, with agents in each office paying an additional $75 per year for unlimited individualized school reports. Margaret O’Keefe, one of the 24 agents at West Hartford’s TR Preston Realtors firm who subscribed to the service, marveled at its convenience. “I’ve used it with several out-of-town buyers,” she explained, “and even with people who don’t have children, or have preschool children.”
The other key reason why realtors paid to deliver school-level data to customers was to avoid accusations of racial steering. Prospective buyers continually asked questions to real estate agents about schools. But the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited agents from overtly mentioning the demographics of schools, and the threat of enforcement discouraged many from voicing any opinion about the quality of different schools. “For real estate agents, the service is a boon,” Rosen told a local reporter, “allowing them to get around ticklish federal restrictions on what agents can tell clients about local school systems.” Lynda Wilson, the President of the Greater Hartford Association of Realtors, agreed. “Agents get so many questions from buyers about schools, and they are very conscious and concerns about giving out misleading information,” she explained. “They are afraid if they give wrong information, they can be accused of steering,” a charge that federal officials had investigated in suburban Hartford in previous years. Margaret O’Keefe, who had previously served as PTO president of two West Hartford schools, understood new federal restrictions to mean that she could share objective education data with clients, but not her own subjective judgments about the quality of individual schools. “You’re treading on very dangerous ground,” she observed, “unless you have facts.”
State education policies for increased testing data and public school accountability also served the real estate industry and its marketing efforts towards homebuyers who were “shopping for schools.” In 1990, the state legislature passed a bill requiring each school and district to submit “strategic profiles” with data about resources and school performance in a uniform format, beginning in 1992. State Senator Kevin Sullivan, the former mayor of West Hartford, helped author the bill and promoted its principle: “to give parents and the community a better sense of what the needs are [and of] how a school is doing.” But the potential for direct school-to-school comparisons made several local educators uneasy. The Connecticut State Department of Education’s chief of research, Douglas Rindone, predicted that “PTOs are going to be interested in [these school reports], real estate agents are going to be interested in them, the press is going to be interested in them.” Linda Cullen, an agent with Century 21 Bushnell Realty in the nearby suburb of Wethersfield, agreed. “We will definitely be using it,” she confirmed. “I have gone to boards of education before, and I’ve been surprised they have so little information.”
Although Connecticut’s “strategic school profiles” first became available in 1992, they did not immediately achieve wide circulation. While hundreds of Connecticut real estate agents read and distributed Rosen’s privately-issued school reports, the typical home buyer still had to request the document directly from local school superintendents, who “usually charge nominal fees” for photocopying, noted one journalist. In the mid-1990s, the daily newspaper published a table of school-level elementary test results for West Hartford only once a year (typically during the busy Christmas and New Year holiday season), in a local edition delivered only to West Hartford and nearby towns.
But the increasing politics of school accountability, media interest, and the Internet boom of the late 1990s all set changes into motion. In 1995, the Prudential Connecticut Realty company opened its first experimental “computerized library,” located at their West Hartford office, for potential buyers to browse photographs of homes and “information on communities’ demographics and school systems.” The Connecticut Department of Education launched its own website in 1996, and began to include test score data for individual schools for the first generation of web surfers in 1997. By the year 2000, homebuyers with computer access could easily and instantly view details about local schools, whether located around the corner or across the country. Part of the data revolution was driven by state education agencies, to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. But non-governmental education advocates and private real estate interests also made significant contributions. GreatSchools.net, founded in 1998, currently describes itself as “the nation’s premier provider of K-12 school information to parents”. This non-profit organization receives funding from philanthropists and advertisers, including partnerships with several leading real estate firms. Its website features school-level test score and demographic data, and claims to have reached 33 million users in 2006. Parents in Connecticut suburbs actively began using the Internet to offer their own comments (and read opinions by others) about the quality of their neighborhood schools.
Over time, suburban Connecticut families have become very conscious of the public school access that they have “purchased” through their private homes. Awareness heightens whenever discussions occur about redistricting school attendance zones. In 1995, for instance, West Hartford citizens engaged in a heated debate over plans to redraw elementary school attendance boundaries, motivated by efforts to relieve overcrowding in schools located in less affluent neighborhoods and to comply with Connecticut’s 1969 racial balancing law. West Hartford parents clashed over different redistricting proposals, with some public meetings attracting up to 500 people. At one meeting, a parent from a more affluent neighborhood who questioned the audience asked: “How many people moved here to West Hartford specifically because of the quality of the neighborhood schools?” According to a local reporter, “Hands shot up around the packed floor of the town hall auditorium,” demonstrating the intensity of the perceived link between public school quality and private residential choice.
Suburban parents in towns like West Hartford have become motivated by both social class aspirations and racial fears. As this formerly all white suburb grows more diverse (with a 34 percent district-wide average minority enrollment in 2007), racial influences become even more apparent. A recent econometric study of West Hartford single-family properties sold between 1996 and 2005 asked how much buyers were willing to pay for a home on the higher-scoring side of an elementary school attendance boundary, controlling for the characteristics of the house, neighborhood, and school racial composition. The correlation was positive and significant: a one standard deviation in elementary test scores produced a 2 percent increase in the price of an average home during this decade. But further analysis revealed that during the latter half of the period (2002-05), the school’s racial composition became much more influential, with a one standard deviation lowering the price by about 4 percent of the cost of an average home. In other words, as suburban homebuyers (the majority of whom are still white) make decisions about where to live in West Hartford, the sales data suggests that they are becoming even more sensitive to the racial composition of their children’s potential classmates than their test scores. Whether white suburban families have been motivated more by racial fears or social class aspirations (or some combination of the two), the common thread is the bond between public education and private housing, which has grown tighter during the twentieth century.
- West Hartford Board of Education, minutes, September 19, 1973, p. 4255. ↵
- William Hathaway, "How Are the Schools? Now It's Easy to Find Out," Hartford Courant 26 Sept 1993, p. J1. ↵
- William Hathaway, "How Are the Schools?" ↵
- Robert Frahm, "Will report cards make grade? School self-evaluations have some educators uneasy." Hartford Courant, 6 October 1992. pg. A.1 ↵
- William Hathaway, "How Are the Schools?" ↵
- Although a brief news story about West Hartford scores might appear in various editions, a graphic featuring individual school results appeared only in the local edition of the Hartford Courant, such as January 6, 1999, page B1 [7 Hartford North final edition]. ↵
- William Hathaway, "Prudential Replaces Hard Sell with Software to Lure Home Buyers." The Hartford Courant, June 6, 1995, p. F1. ↵
- According to the Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org), the original website for the Connecticut Department of Education (http://www.state.ct.us/sde) was launched in May 1996, and with Strategic School Profiles added as a new feature, most likely in late 1997. ↵
- GreatSchools.net, Press release, April 4, 2007, http://www.greatschools.net/cgi-bin/static/press20060404.txt/CA. ↵
- Robin Stansbury, "School Districting Divides West Hartford." The Hartford Courant, January 29, 1995, p. A1. ↵
- Jack Dougherty, Jeffrey Harrelson, Laura Maloney, Drew Murphy, Russell Smith, Michael Snow, and Diane Zannoni, "School Choice in Suburbia: Test Scores, Race, and Housing Markets," American Journal of Education 115, no. 4 (August 2009): 523-48. ↵