Strong Schools Need a Strong Economy

By Dan Reed.

Here are two houses for sale in Montgomery County. They’re identical in every way: 4 bedrooms, 3.5 baths, 3000 square feet, quarter-acre lots, all built in the 1980s by the same homebuilder. Both are in nice stable neighborhoods and close to major highways. They’re even the same color!

However, the home on the left sold last year for $515,000, while the home on the right sold for $765,000. What’s the $250,000 difference?

If you know Montgomery County real estate, you can probably guess: the house on the right is zoned for Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, a top-rated school not just in the county, but nationwide. The home on the left is zoned for Springbrook High School in White Oak, which has a lower ranking.

This wasn’t always the case. A look at the tax record for both homes and similar homes in each neighborhood shows that they each sold for about $200,000 when they were built.

Around that time, both schools were generally similar in demographics and reputation. In 1983, three Springbrook students won a national merit award; the following year, growing enrollment meant the school had portables and students ate lunch in shifts; and in 1990, Richard Montgomery was named a US Blue Ribbon School.

Over time, as the county’s become more diverse, the schools’ fortunes have diverged. Both Springbrook and Richard Montgomery have diverse student bodies and offer the IB (International Baccalaureate) curriculum. But RM is one of the top 5 schools in the DC area, due in part to its magnet program, which attracts top students from across the county. That’s boosted its reputation: while Richard Montgomery is several hundred students over capacity, Springbrook is projected to have 200 empty seats for the next several years.

What does this mean? If families perceive some schools in Montgomery County as “better” than others, they’ll flock to those schools, which can run up house prices in those areas. That’s why a home in the RM catchment is worth dramatically more than one near Springbrook.

This also creates a vicious cycle. MCPS continues to add thousands of students each year, but funding hasn’t kept up. The result is that schools don’t always have the resources they need to perform. To fill the void, wealthier families at higher-ranked schools will pay for things that the school system can’t, like the parents at Wootton High School in Rockville who raised $1.3 million for a new athletic field. That only exacerbates the appearance that some schools are better than others, which means a greater disparity in home values.

This has far reaching effects on our neighborhoods and our economy. Homes in lower-ranked school catchments sell for less, which means families build less equity, and the county collects fewer property taxes. Businesses may be reluctant to locate in areas with less desirable schools, fearful that they may have a hard time attracting employees. As jobs and economic development cluster on the western side of the county, where the so-called “better” schools are located, we even have more traffic as people in East County head west for work or shopping.

The result of all of this is a smaller tax base and even less funding for our school system, which means that this inequity grows even greater.

We need a strong local economy to ensure strong public schools in every part of Montgomery County. Even if you don’t have children in school, the perception of your neighborhood school still has an impact on your community and your quality of life.