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Education Reporter

Wealthy, Suburban Schools are Failing, Study Shows
Many middle-class parents believe that living in the right neighborhood will ensure an academically strong public education for their children. In fact, studies show that parents often buy houses they can't really afford in order to place their children in a "better" school system. Between 1984 and 2001, families with at least one minor child increased their spending on housing at a rate three times that of families without minor children; and perceived school quality is often the most important reason that similar homes differ in price.

The Pacific Research Institute (PRI) exposes the truth about many middle-class schools in a recent publication, Not as Good as You Think: Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice. The book shows that in dozens of California neighborhoods where families spend hundreds of thousands or over $1 million on their homes, their children nevertheless attend mediocre schools where tiny percentages of students score as proficient in academic subjects.

Take Vasquez High School in Acton, California. The average home in Acton sells for $650,000, and the average household income is $101,012. At Vasquez High school, however, only 5% of students taking the California Standards Test (CST) in Algebra 1 score at or above proficiency. Only 3% of geometry students are proficient or better in geometry, and only 33% of 10th- and 11th-graders are proficient or better in English. Schools in the Silicon Valley, Santa Barbara, Orange County and other areas known for middle- and upper-class respectability produce similarly dismal results.

The numbers become even more shocking when compared with another standard for academic achievement, the Early Assessment Program (EAP) college-ready English and math exams. The California State University system administers this test on a voluntary basis to 11th-graders, to assess their preparation for college coursework. Even at schools where relatively high proportions of students pass the 11th-grade CST English and math exams, few test as college-ready on the EAP.

For example, in Newport Beach, 52% of 11th-graders tested as proficient or better on the English CST, but only 24% tested as college-ready on the English EAP. No wonder up to 60% of freshmen in the California State system need remedial coursework.

Even in exclusive, clearly upper-class neighborhoods where most parents are exceptionally successful, parents can't depend on successful schools. Marin County, California has the highest per capita income in the nation. Among parents of students at San Marin High, 82% went to college. But even here, only 23% of students test as ready for college. Less than half of 11th-graders even score as proficient on the English CST.

"While many middle-class parents recognize the need for reform in schools located in poor, urban neighborhoods, they are often under the mistaken impression that because they live in safe, well-to-do suburbs, the schools attended by their own children are very good," said Lance T. Izumi, co-author of Not as Good as You Think.

The book goes on to address eight myths about school choice, which often close the minds of middle- and upper-class parents and other voters against the possibility that choice could improve education for all students. "Unlike the current system of assigned schooling, empowering parents to choose the schools they think are best - public or private - introduces powerful pressure to improve academic performance or risk losing students to schools that will," says co-author Vicki E. Murray.

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