The Myth of the Middle-Class School

As middle-class suburban homeowners cling precariously to their dwellings in the midst of the current housing slump, many comfort themselves, as they write out their high mortgage payment checks, that at least their children can attend good neighborhood public schools.  Unfortunately for these parents, all too often these supposedly “good” public schools have bad records when it comes to student achievement.

In California, for example, there are hundreds of regular public schools in middle-class and more affluent neighborhoods where less than half of the students in at least one grade level fail to perform at the proficient level in English or math on state tests.  These schools are located throughout the state, on the expensive coastline, in suburbs and exurbs, and in conservative inland “red” counties. Here are a few examples.

Just east of Sacramento is Placer County, the most Republican county in the state.  Republicans dominate Placer’s congressional and state legislative delegations.  Embattled Republican congressman John Doolittle, fighting accusations of improper campaign contributions stemming from the Abramoff fiasco, represents the area.   The GOP also controls local bodies such as city councils and school boards.  Big new tract homes and big box stores fill the landscape.  Yet, for all this seeming suburban coziness, the performance of students at one of the supposedly top local high schools leaves a lot to be desired.

At Oakmont High School, which sits in a zip code where the median home price earlier this year was in $450,000 range, less than half of tenth graders and only four in 10 eleventh graders scored at the proficient level on the state English exam in 2007.  In mathematics, the scores were even worse.  Only about a quarter of students taking either the state algebra I or algebra II exams scored proficient, while less than one in five taking the geometry test scored at that level.

The city of San Mateo, just south of San Francisco, has produced such notables as entertainment legend Merv Griffin and two-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady. Like other towns along peninsula from San Francisco to San Jose, San Mateo has astronomical home prices.  Hillsdale High School in San Mateo is in a zip code with a median home price of more than $800,000.  Yet, in 2007, less than half of eleventh graders scored at or above the proficient level on the state English exam.

Another bad sign for many California high schools in middle-class and affluent areas is the low proportion of 11th graders who test at the college-ready level on the California State University’s Early Assessment Program (EAP) exam, which is supposed to spot students who may need remedial instruction in English or math as freshmen. Take, for instance, Newport Harbor High School in posh Newport Beach in conservative Orange County.

Newport Harbor High is now best known as the site of MTV’s reality show Newport Harbor: The Real Orange County.  While the television show focuses on the usual teen rivalries and love triangles, little is said about the achievement of students at the high school.  That may be just as well, at least for school officials, since in 2006 less than one in four Newport Harbor’s eleventh graders taking the EAP English exam tested at the college-ready level.

The beach community of Torrance near Los Angeles is another example. It is home to some the most famous high schools in America. Torrance High was the setting of Beverly Hills 90210 and South High, the location of the 1999 film American Beauty. But when only slightly more than half of those high-school students score proficient in English, and less than a third test college-ready, the fancy facades aren’t much consolation to parents paying mortgages on $700,000 homes.

Parents in such upscale areas as Santa Barbara, the Silicon Valley, the Northern California wine country, and San Diego enclaves like La Jolla all had similar low college-ready rates among their students.

California, however, is not alone. Nationwide, an average of six out of 10 4th and 8th grade students who are not poor score below grade-level proficiency in math and reading on the Nation’s Report Card.

It is time for the broad middle class in America to realize that their “free” suburban schools are, in many cases, not as good as they have been led to believe.  Once they understand that they are not getting the bang for their mortgage and tax buck, they can then wield their large political clout to demand the freedom to choose their children’s schools regardless of where they live.  Strapped “house poor” middle-class parents can benefit from a school-choice voucher just as much as parents in low-income areas.  Only with such choice options will middle-class homebuyers finally get what they paid for.