Housing Complex

School House Rock: Is Michelle Rhee becoming a force in D.C. real estate?

(Darrow Montgomery)

(Darrow Montgomery)

It’s a pretty commonly accepted principle in the real estate business: You buy as much house as you can afford. And then, unless you’re wealthy enough to support tens of thousands of dollars a year on your child’s education before they even fill out a college application, you buy the best school district you can afford, too.

In no American region is that more true than the Washington suburbs, where parents go to great lengths to get their kids into the best public school districts. One realtor related a request from a pregnant client who wanted to find a house in a Montgomery County district with the high school she planned for the unborn child to attend 14 years later. In Loudoun County, one district’s sale prices are consistently inflated because the local high school has the best football team in the state, and parents will pay anything to have their promising boys eligible to play there.

That wasn’t always the case with the public schools in the District itself, which mobile, education-minded parents would move to Maryland or Virginia to avoid (or, if they stayed in D.C., pay their way out of).

“For the District of Columbia, it was less of an issue a few years ago, when the schools were just routinely just written off,” says Elizabeth Blakeslee, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker. “People either moved when their kids were five or six, or if they were lucky enough to send them to private schools, then that was fine.”

Then, says Blakeslee, came Mayor Anthony Williams, with his increased focus on schools. And then public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and her relentless drive for results.

Now, every realtor can tick off the names of the hot elementary schools: Mann, Murch, Janney, Key, Lafayette, Eaton, Oyster. Because of fair housing laws passed in response to redlining, realtors are strictly forbidden from offering their clients advice about which ones are best. But they don’t need to: Like any consumer good, parents can go comparison shopping for schools on rating sites, message boards, and real estate listing services, which are now matching up homes for sale with test scores and reviews of local schools. And they do. They talk to principals and PTA presidents and poll their friends.

“We have a highly educated buying population in D.C., and they value their schools greatly. They do their research, they study up, and they find the specific district that they want to be in,” says real estate agent Skip Singleton. “If they find a better house in another district, they’re not interested.”

On the flip side, of course, are the areas of the city where land is still cheap—Anacostia River Realty’s Darrin Davis says that the schools east of the river aren’t good enough for house hunters to make any distinctions, and there aren’t any families buying there anyway. But if the schools got better, all the single people moving in might just stay and buy bigger houses, which could be the economic engine Wards 7 and 8 need.

All of which—as DCPS contemplates revamping its assignment policies and geographic boundaries—makes Rhee one of the most powerful people in D.C. real estate. In Upper Northwest neighborhoods where schools have long had good reputations, enrollment is soaring this year, and real estate prices have stayed high as well. Elsewhere, homeowners who never used to dream of sending their kids to local schools are giving them a second chance. Meanwhile, parents who can’t afford to buy in the ritzier districts are wondering when—and whether—Rhee’s reforms will pay off for schools where gentrification only recently arrived.


In a city where education never used to matter much to the real estate market—because so few public schools were considered good enough to be a draw—this all adds up to a big change. Enrollment for sought-after schools in Upper Northwest is off the charts for the school year that started Monday. Janney and Murch are taking in over more than 500 students, up from 444 and 480 respectively last year. Key Elementary is looking at 375 students, up 32; Mann expects 280, up from 269. And on down the list.

Though the education is free, most parents paid a premium for their kids to enjoy it.

With the exception of Barnard Elementary in Petworth, all 10 of the elementary schools that rate a perfect 10 at GreatSchools.org—a non-profit that ranks schools on the basis of test scores—are located in the five ZIP codes with the highest average tax assessments in the District. High-performing schools are a large reason why houses in those areas have still sold like hotcakes even during the recession, realtors say; while properties across the city can sit on the market for months before finding buyers, houses in American University Park and Chevy Chase get snapped up within days.

But the phenomenon isn’t totally limited to tony Ward 3 neighborhoods, where the schools have been considered acceptable (at least) for decades. Public schools in Dupont Circle, Mount Pleasant, and Capitol Hill are getting good buzz lately, and incoming parents are starting to look for homes in those districts too.

“We have had a renaissance,” boasts Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells in a video featured on his campaign website. “Just to see the excitement of the realtors who are so happy with me, because now people say, not just ‘are we in the boundaries for the cluster,’ but ‘are we in the boundary for Brent, are we in the boundary for Maury, are we in the boundary for Tyler…Really no other urban area in America has had so many traditional elementary schools come back online as schools of choice in such a concentrated area.”

And it even goes beyond elementary schools. Especially as the economy has made the District’s provision of $10,000 grants toward tuition at public universities a more attractive perk, realtors report that their clients no longer pick up stakes and head for the ’burbs as soon as their kids hit middle school—there’s greater willingness to give the full run of public education a chance.
Realtors think the reforms are helping the market: Every one I talked to said Rhee’s approach was creating optimism about the future of the public schools. And even though the Washington D.C. Association of Realtors endorsed Vincent Gray for mayor, it’s not because of dissatisfaction with the progress of public education.

“We are thrilled by that,” says WDCAR lobbyist Ed Krauze. “We are probably one of the direct beneficiaries of those decisions.”

That’s all very well and good for those who can buy their way into the best school districts. But there are a number of neighborhoods that are improving faster than their schools can support.

Take Bloomingdale and Brookland, for example, which are in the middle of a baby boom. Local realtor and incoming WDCAR president Suzanne Des Marais has seen more families moving into her home turf of Bloomingdale in the last couple of years than ever before—but it’s in spite of the schools, not because of them.

“I don’t know anybody who sends their kids to school in my neighborhood, which is a little crazy,” says Des Marais, whose 12-year-old goes to a private school in Takoma Park.

Ward 5 was particularly hard hit by the school closures of 2008, which left thousands of students without a neighborhood school, assigning them to classrooms further away. One parent calls “purple splotch areas,” after how they show up on DCPS’ district map.

“If I were house-hunting, I’d absolutely avoid these closed-school neighborhoods,” e-mails one parent, who lives in the district formerly served by Clark Elementary. “The sheer uncertainty would keep me away. And I worry about our ability to sell our home should we need to.”

In these areas, many parents are obsessively researching charter schools: Instead of Mann, Murch and Lafayette, the names on everyone’s lips are E.L. Haynes, Two Rivers, and Yu Ying. Charter schools enrolled 28,000 students last year—38 percent of D.C.’s total public school population. With no geographical requirements for admission, the growth of charter schools frees parents from the need to live in a certain neighborhood.

But it’s not a foolproof option. It’s harder to get into the most popular charter schools now than it was a few years ago. And at a certain point, they may have to face the lackluster public schools in their own neighborhoods.

Angela Robinson, an attorney who bought a house in Bloomingdale in 2004, moderates a Yahoo! group of about 140 parents of young children in the neighborhood. She says that most moved into the area planning to leave when they had kids, but have since made comfortable lives, and don’t want to retreat to the suburbs. Soon, she’s thinking, a critical mass of parents  might be willing to take a chance collectively, figuring that they could improve the schools by dint of pure involvement.

At that point, the effect of schools on real estate could reverse itself: The strong appeal of D.C.’s neighborhoods would create an imperative to invest in local public schools, whether Rhee’s reforms work or not.

“No one wants to go back to a two-hour-a-day commute, not having an interesting place to eat other than Applebee’s,” Robinson says. “It’s going to start hitting us in the next year or so. Oh my god, am I really going to move? Or am I going to deal with the schools that are here?”

  • Tim

    Amazing write-up...

  • None

    Non-amazing write-up. Pretty much just the conventional wisdom. I'd like to see the details. Is enrollment up at the West-of-Rock-Creek schools up due to parent interest, or something else? I presume when you shut schools down as Rhee did, most of the other schools need to increase enrollment. What about the fact that schools are supposed to be ramping up pre-K programs. Is that the reason for higher enrollment? Add a grade and your numbers will go up. Or how about whether out of district kids are getting squeezed out of those schools? Will Fenty be able to keep his out-of-district kids in Lafayette? And what about middle schools and high schools?

  • Linda/RetiredTeacher

    Sadly, this is what "reform" is really about.

  • Dan


    It is, indeed. As Jonetta's piece and some comments point out, these better-educated, more-affluent parents (of all races) also bring in a nice flush of cash for their specific schools via the PTA because they are historically more interested and experienced in fundraising (auctions, parent associations with thick dues, etc.). This is both good and bad.

    On the bright side, it creates an opportunity for schools to improve their resources, so that a school that pulls an economically-mixed student body can do a better job of serving less-affluent kids. A good example is the turn around at Bancroft, where the MtP culture has mostly embraced the multicultural diversity and the broad economic spectrum of its families.

    On the cause-for-sincere-skepticism side, we have Hardy MS, where the success of the aforementioned effect seems to have inspired an ugly case of "now that the school is nice again, let's kick out the families who aren't from around here and enjoy our privileged lives secluded from the rest of the town."

    Michelle Rhee -- nor any other chancellor -- will ever be the silver bullet who so many people erroneously believe is out there. The two biggest drivers toward an effective school or school system are simply (1) MONEY (and lots of it) and (2) the constant involvement of well-informed PARENTS, particularly those who are well-educated.

    The pitfall, of course, is the intent driving financial resources and engaged parents. If those involved are sincere about wanting the best learning environment for every kid (their own, their neighbors, the kids from out of boundary) in the school and the greater system, regardless of class, race or geography, this may be a recipe for success. But if the goal is to quietly gentrify and displace, then any "gains" will be temporary and we inflame the city-wide Us vs. Them battles that are already re-igniting.

    So take heed, upper middle class DC: if you really want your children to be "safe," welcome kids to your schools who are from less privileged circumstances, regardless of their boundary statuses. Embrace them, support them, get them the resources that helped you earn those Ivy League degrees. And even more, consider going dollar for dollar in matching your donations to your own kids' schools to that of a PTA across the River.

    If you continue to push deserving kids out of schools like Hardy just because of their boundary status, you are simply telling them "we don't want you to have the same resources as our kids do," you squashing hope. Study after study has shown that the No. 1 long-term solution to actually eliminate (rather displace) criminal activity is to empower less-affluent citizens with the privileges of a first-class education.

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  • efavorite

    What this article failed to mention is that much of the boom is in pre-school and kindergarten - services just recently offered in many schools, and thanks to Vincent Gray's initiatives.

  • incredulous


    The number of out of boundary students at Hardy tripled as total school capacity grew, from 120 to to about 360. A doubling of within-boundary matriculants, would exhaust the supply of matriculants from feeder schools and still leave over 300 places for out of boundary students.

    Give yourself an "Oh, nevermind....." moment, and think about whether Michelle Rhee, engaged to an AA man, listened to a group of parents at Key ES repeating what other groups for over 40 years have expressed about slack educational quality at Hardy MS, and thought their concerns were fabricated, without merit, coded language for racism. Rhee is not without some intelligence, however badly she manages DCPS and little understands research findings on the de facto limits of school-effects on academic achievement.

    The Pope himself long understood those limits. That's part of why he developed a program permitting his staff to screen applicants. (He didn't develop an arts program -- that was developed nearly forty years ago as part of Six Schools, with Filmore Arts Center. Protests that admission was universal are lame; the message was clear that children with a troubled school background need not apply unless sponsored. Even a white person whose only knowledge of voter franchise discrimination is from the American history of poll and literacy tests understands that.

    Protestsers over the Georgetown death and Downtown resurrection of the pontiff have never availed themselves of data on achievement to demonstrate that Hardy MS was a strong middle school, doing little more for most than sheltering children from storms. The data demonstrate neither longitudinal gains nor striking superiority. Mediocre isn't bad, but it is less than what many parents aspire for their kids in a school.

    Articles such as this and Jonetta's just begin to tap potential trouble spots. Eaton ES and especially Hearst ES have long been destinations for AA parents. Retention of tiny attendance boundaries for Hearst ES amount to a set-aside of traditionally reserved spots for system-savy parents working sibling-preference and the under-the-blotter application process. (I know. I worked it.)

    On supporting schools elsewhere in the city: Yes, where have you been during the demise of organizations like Parents United, which did just that?

  • Dan

    incredulous, you are all over the map, so it is hard to respond except to reply to your parting question (shot?): I was a college student in another part of the country during the demise of Parents United et al.

    The capacity argument at Hardy is weak. You assume that parents do not have the option of sending their kids to other schools across the city. I grew up in DC, attended schools across town and was all the better for doing us. Frankly, "neighborhoodism" is one of the biggest impediments to building unity in this city. That would negate your fundamental assumption that Ward 2 kids have to go to Hardy, as opposed to elsewhere.

    It is hard to be moved by your "data" argument. The only statistics that should actually count for anything are students' college entrance exam scores, the prestige of colleges who will accept these students and the students' performances in college.

    Finally, you might want to have an "oh, nevermind..." moment of your own before setting out to polarize everyone on all sides of a debate. What is your point?

  • Baklava


    I thought Vincent Gray's initiatives were centered around Charter Schools and more non-unionized schools to push out all of the unionized teachers?

  • Money talks…

    That is the problem...the well-to-do of all races who now have extra money to spend, all of sudden wants to dictate through debit-cards. I just recently came from a meeting...and before the principal could finish addressing the crowd...it almost became a silent auction for activities. I literally heard parents conniving on how they could keep an elite athletic activity gender and race specific without offending the other races.

    Remember there was disadvantage students and then we morphed in to at-risk students. Well, that has all went down the drain as we have been brain-washed that if you are not intravaneous feed "diversity" you are destined to be on the do not resucitate list.

    Are you serious Gray's initiatives? If, that is true the historic school of Dunbar High School will be dead in the water as soon as September 14th.

  • nobodyouknow

    What brought ALL of these changes about was the establishment of charter schools. Ten years ago there were hardly any, but now they have about one-third of the student population. This put tremendous pressure on DCPS. (Any large corporation that looses 1/3 of its business in just 10 years is in trouble, and probably will go bankrupt.) DCPS and the teacher's union have gotten the message that lip service won't do anymore. In response DCPS has been closing its worn-out and under-performing schools, to redirect its resources to its winners.

    Now schools compete for children, which is a huge change in how the system is motivated. Rhee's single-minded focus on test scores is based on this understanding. It started all the way down in preschool, and is now percolating to the upper grades.

  • Money talks…

    Charter schools were all created with the pretense to attract whites back to the system. Remember the unnecessary creation of OSSE as this was going to foster this relationship between charter and traditional. Here it is the 10th year and we are as close as Mars is to the Earth. Again, every educational renaissance that is supposedly to broaden the diversity quota has back fired. Duh rah, as in Banneker, SWW, Phelps, McKinley and Duke Ellington...the percentage of whites have not reached the double-digits. Wilson has gone to hell in a hand-basket and the last ditch hope is to remodel it and have the management team implement "new" requirements. As for Capitol Hill, the life-saving vest is saying SOS Eastern and the cruise director is Wells

  • nobodyouknow

    @Money talks -- boiling it all down to race does simplify things. Have you looked at the proficiency scores of the charter high schools? And if you do, don't let the data fool you.

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  • Longtime DCParent

    There is also the "$1,000-stroller baby boom" effect. In polite conversation, some people in NW claim they are confident in Rhee and that's why they're (now) going to a DCPS. After a couple of drinks, some will confess that they were assuming private school would be an option before the dual whammy of the recession and $30K a year for preschool.

    It will be interesting to see enrollment numbers once the economy turnaround (more money for private), the good charters expand (more middle and high school spaces at "diverse" schools), the local DCPS in wards 4-8 improve (fewer OOB in NW), and universal pre-k is implemented (thank you Gray AND Rhee).

    @Moneytalks. You have no understanding of the charter movement. If there is a conspiracy, it would be to pull black kids out of public schools, not put white kids in charters.

  • Cathy

    Advising people how to make sure their precious children won't have to go to school with African Americans, I see. Where in the heck is Mike Madden? Does he know about this racist rant?

  • http://www.firstchristianacademy.org Gary

    It's kind of sad that parents go through so much to put their kids in a nice program. I understand being in a nice neighborhood for sure. But paying extra money to be on a football team is a little extreme. At my Houston Christian High School, we went there to learn first, play second.

  • http://www.pinewood.edu Private schools fan

    I didn't used to see the benefits of private schools until my sister sent her kids there. Talk about a great place for expanded learning in almost any possible area. I think you are right though. It's every American mom's dream to get her child into the best education that they can possibly afford even if it means moving.