Would You Move for Better Schools?
August 25, 2012 4:25 PM   Subscribe

Moving to a better school zone. Should I do it? Tough decisions concerning moving, staying put, and financial future.


1. Own nice home in nice neighborhood which is centrally located. It's a quiet subdivision with big yards and sidewalks. It is one mile from younger child's school. We've lived here for 14 years. Will own house outright in three years time -- we owe about 13k on it. Have two kids, ages 9 and almost 12.

2. Eldest kid started middle school this year (6th grade). We are zoned for "urban" middle school. School has a D grade rating from the state. It has a bad reputation and plenty of people do their best to avoid this school. In my neighborhood, and neighboring neighborhoods, there are many families who fabricate addresses and produce false documents to get enroll their children to better school in the same district. In my neighborhood, there are two kids who go to the "bad" middle school, and one of those kids is my kids. There are two other small subdivisions close to mine. I know a lot of these kids in the neighborhood. Without exaggeration none of these kids go to the "bad" middle school. The high school we are currently zoned for has a bad reputation as well and many people flee to avoid it. The "good" high school in our area is 1000 students overcrowded.

3. This summer, my spouse and I chose to go through the process the "right" and "honest" way and apply for a variance to the better middle school that is 2 miles away from our home. We were denied and appealed. The appeal was denied. We appealed the appeal and were denied again. At that point, the appeal process was exhausted. That was it. No dice. So, we start to panic a bit and put our house on the market.

4. We are working with a realtor. Realtor is neighbor and acquaintance from high school. She is nice. She is competent. She is offering us no discount. We didn't ask or expect one. We will pay 6%. We signed 6-month contract. There is a $500 fee to break contract.

5. We have been house hunting. There is hardly any inventory in the good school zone (same district, just better zone). The houses that are in the "good" school zone are expensive and a lot of them are not as nice as my house. I keep comparing. It pains me to pay so much for a "downgrade."

6. When I explain situation to friends, acquaintances, and coworkers everybody is baffled as to why we did not produce and address. We have close family who lives in good middle school zone and could use their address. They have offered to put my name on utility bill and could help me get on other necessary documents that the school necessitates.

7. Spouse and I (especially me) are starting to get serious cold feet. I do not want to move. I feel like I have made huge mistake. I feel like breaking contract right now and staying in my house and going the dishonest route to get my kid into better school.

8. There are no quality private schools around. The closest one is Christian private. We are not religious. There are Catholic privates, an Episcopalian private, and a Jewish private. They are quite a distance away, expensive, and don't have great reputations. Most of these schools are suffering because of the economy. The have lost students and tuition. We believe in public school and aren't really interested in sending our kids to a private school that is affiliated with a religion. There are no secular privates, charters, or magnets. This is fairly small town Florida. Options are limited.

9. I am aware that there are many factors that can cause a school to earn a D grade and a bad reputation. My child's current, and zoned, middle school heavily emphasizes anti-bullying. It discourages the use of the provided lockers. I guess too many students congregate/store drugs/fight at lockers. I don't know. They have signs everywhere that give you the impression that behavior problems are rampant. There are posters everywhere about respect and bullying and a signs in the hallway that say "keep moving, no talking". The segregate kids by grade, which is fine by me. The word is that the PTA and School Advisory Council are dismal. Parent participation and presence dismal. My kid was pushed three times on first day and slapped a few times in PE. Evidently in PE class some kids were slapping everybody on the back of the neck. My kid didn't seem too phased. It might be normal middle school antics.

I am having a hard time with this. I feel like we are making huge financial mistake by moving. My quality of life wouldn't change much -- we would just have a longer mortgage payment. I would basically be in same town, with slightly higher property taxes and a bigger mortgage. It is still a lot of money. Some friends say get the hell out of that school. Some friends say it's fine. I feel like an idiot going about the variance route when all of my friends and neighbors got an address from a friend or family member and are sending their kid to the school of their choice.

Is moving to another school zone, in the same district, the right thing to do? What factors should I be considering that I haven't stated? Have you done it? What are your experiences? Also, how should I handle breaking my contract with my neighbor/real estate agent who has spent this week showing us houses and dealing with paperwork, listing my house, taking pictures, delivering copies, etc. The contract states there is 500 dollar fee if broker and seller mutually break contracts. I wonder if our agent will get half of that. I hope so. Is there any way they can not agree and keep the house listed for 6 months? They say they will get the 6% commission if I sell it 6 months after the contract has been broken. No problem for me because I'm not going to sell it.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The broker and agent accept the risk that you may withdraw. Sales fail way further down the road than you are. Pay the $500 and don't let it keep you up.

We have close family who lives in good middle school zone and could use their address. They have offered to put my name on utility bill and could help me get on other necessary documents that the school necessitates.

This is what I would do. There's a fuckton of moral math you can do around this issue but at the end of the day, these are your kids, not an abstract concept, and you are going to do everything you can to get them the best education you can provide. If other parents do the moral math differently, they can make that decision for their kids and go ahead and feel smug and superior to you. Bully for them.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:35 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some friends say get the hell out of that school. Some friends say it's fine.

You will get the same variety of answers here. I'll add my anecdata to the mix for you.

My kids are in a crap urban school: 2 kids, 2 vastly different experiences.

My 99th-percentile, AP, theater, niche-finding college-bound gifted kid has gotten a great education because both students and teachers in the classes he takes are focused on the course content. We are expecting not just acceptance at his schools of choice but some scholarships as well.

My average, non-sports, non-AP but also not special ed or vocationally driven kid has been in huge, unruly classes where teachers have zero authority, there are no consequences for bad behavior, expectations are lowered when kids don't meet them just so they can be promoted to the next grade, and lots of kids count the days until they turn 16 so they can legally drop out and get their GEDs. The culture where your kids are defines the education they'll get. He was supposed to graduate last June and is still working on it, and it's *really* hard for him to see a purpose to it because he hasn't actually learned anything in over a year. Same school as the other one.

No matter how involved you are as a parent, no matter how interested the school counselors might be in your kid, in middle-school and high-school the culture where your kid spends his days is going to have a tremendous influence on the quality of his education. It can definitely be done in a crap school, but there are a lot of variables that don't appear in the test scores.

There are always going to be tradeoffs with difficult decisions like this. Only you can decide what's best for your family.
posted by headnsouth at 4:44 PM on August 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

I feel your pain, as my beautiful house in a wonderful neighborhood is zoned for a terrible middle and high school. Is there a school permitting procedure for your district, to get your middle schooler into a different nearby school? Aside from the one you already applied for, I mean? I permitted my kindergartener into a great elementary school near my office using the "employment permit" system. I am in California so of course things may be different, but look and see if there are other permit types you can work with.

Around here lots of people also do the false documentation to get their kids into good schools. I have pondered, hypothetically, whether it would be strictly legal to instead rent a cheap room in a shared house (like a student house) in a good district in order to get genuine paperwork. That way its not fake, you do rent a room in that address. However I'm not sure if there is a residency requirement, like your child would actually have to sleep in that place x night a week or something. I'm sure some students or shared house people would love to have an absentee roommate paying rent!
posted by Joh at 4:52 PM on August 25, 2012

Oh and since I didn't clarify, I permitted my kid out of one city and into another city, not just a different school in the same city. In case you or your spouse works somewhere with good schools.
posted by Joh at 4:53 PM on August 25, 2012

We have close family who lives in good middle school zone and could use their address. They have offered to put my name on utility bill and could help me get on other necessary documents that the school necessitates.
Depending on what state you're in, this could be a felony.
Would You Move for Better Schools?
Yes. You're a parent. This is "what you do" if you can afford it. If there's some major financial impediment that will beggar you and your family, then obviously that's not in the cards, but you should be making your real estate decisions primarily on what schools your kids will have access to.
posted by deanc at 4:54 PM on August 25, 2012

I personally would not feel good about falsifying my address. I would feel like gaming the system is a bad example to model for my children. I've lived in houses I loved and became attached to but, at the end of the day, a house (as long as it provides shelter and safety) is just a shell to contain your family. If I truly believed my children's education (and by extension their long-term life experiences) would be significantly improved by attending a different school, I would make that happen if at all possible. YMMV, of course.
posted by SweetTeaAndABiscuit at 5:06 PM on August 25, 2012

I also would not feel good about falsifying my address. As the neighboring school becomes more crowded, they might start doing home checks, etc, which would be horribly embarrassing for you and your family. Two ideas (sorry if you've already considered these--you seem to have come down to the two options outlined above, so maybe you have):

1. Given that you don't even want any of the houses available, why not sell your house, rent a place in the good zone for however many years you need to, to get the kids through school, then buy again in your old neighborhood or some other area that you actually like? We pay far less in rent in a good zone than we would pay in an equivalently-sized home mortgage in take-your-pick-of the crappy neighboring zones.

2. Or, since you have so little on your existing mortgage, can you keep your house and rent it out, and use that $$ to help pay for a rental of your own in a decent district? Then you can move back to your house after your kids are done with school.

Good luck.
posted by tk at 5:18 PM on August 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

I would first consider if it's at all possible to change job situations to live in a town/state that is neither of these towns, because neither sounds like a great prospect (I went to grad school in Florida, taught a great number of students from Florida public schools, and they were, by all accounts terrible; I didn't want to stay in Florida in part because of the school situation there) and I wouldn't want to repeat this situation with subsequent children. I'd also look into residential hippie alternative schools in other states (like Indian Springs School, where Florida-born author John Green went to school), but I roll that way.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:22 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree with tk, rent a place in a good school district and rent your place out. When your kids are done with school, move back.
posted by crankylex at 5:26 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I was a kid, my parents used my grandparents' address to send me and my sister to schools in a better part of the school district. It was a bit stressful having to remember two address and phone numbers and a story for why we lived with my grandparents, but not awful. Eventually we were caught, and had to switch mid-year. That part was kind of awful and embarrassing.

The funny thing after all that drama, though, was that the "bad" schools were much better and we both preferred the new schools. They were in poorer areas, and there was probably more opportunity for getting into trouble if either of us had been inclined that way, but the education was great and we made plenty of interesting friends.

In my freshman year of high school my parents bought a house in a different school district with excellent ratings and all that. We again switched mid-year, and that was again no fun if at least not also embarrassing. While I wouldn't in any way call my education there was bad, or even mediocre, it was nowhere near as good as the district we had been in. My sister agrees, and she spent more time there. There was nowhere near the same number of opportunities, the facilities were all in worse shape, and I strongly suspect a lot more kids in my classes were doing or selling drugs.

As an example of the perception vs. reality of the two school districts, a friend from school #2 had to take his SATs at school #1 for some scheduling reason, and asked me if he needed to be worried about his safety. Because of gangs? I still don't know. In contrast it took school #2 two and half years to teach me a little less German than I'd learned in one semester at the first school.

There are plenty of schools with terrible reputations that actually are terrible, but I also would not go just by ratings at all. I think headnsouth's comment is great.
posted by sepviva at 6:07 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just throwing this out there: have you considered Florida Virtual School? I have a coworker whose two kids are doing virtual schooling. They stay at home for their classes, but she's not responsible for teaching them; they have their coursework and assignments and exams, etc. etc. etc. all done through online courses.
posted by lea724 at 6:29 PM on August 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

I agree with headnsouth, it depends on your kids. I sub in a lot of different schools, and it's not like the bad ones are wastelands where no one succeeds. It's just a whole lot easier to fall through the cracks. If your kids are smart and not susceptible to behavior problems, they'll be fine. On the other hand, if they need extra academic help or are likely to find the Wring Kind of Friends, then you might want to get out.

I think there are a lot of kids who can just coast through whatever school and be just fine. Can your kids do that?
posted by that's how you get ants at 6:48 PM on August 25, 2012

also agree with headnsouth that it depends on your kids. i went to a school that the district wanted to shut down before my senior year. my senior year, the only classes i was actually taking at the school were my AP art, AP english, yearbook, and AP french classes because there were no more classes for me to take. i had to take the rest of my courses at the local UC or city college to earn enough credits to graduate. my school wasn't a "bad" school per se but the quality of classes definitely varied. i remember writing my papers for my english class in the period before the class one year and getting an A in the class. i also never found any of my classes particularly challenging. i ended up getting into every college i applied to, including two ivies. that sounds stupidly braggy but that was just meant to illustrate again that it's really up to your kids what they get out of the education they are offered.
posted by violetk at 8:54 PM on August 25, 2012

I like the following ideas:
(a) Renting elsewhere.
(b) The "virtual school" option if you have it--a friend of mine's kid is doing it in Arizona.
(c) Look into options for home schooling, continuation schooling, or independent study schooling. I actually think the latter two might work the best for you to keep your home.

However, this is going to depend on your kids. Some are highly motivated and some are not, and some are likely to drift the hell off into space and need to be nagged constantly to do anything. If the latter is the case, the kid might be better off at a "bad" school than anything that requires him to work more independently.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:16 PM on August 25, 2012

"In my neighborhood, and neighboring neighborhoods, there are many families who fabricate addresses and produce false documents to get enroll their children to better school in the same district."

Report these people. It is fraud. It also impacts school funding -- funds follow students -- and helps keep bad schools bad. If their children play sports, their children may lose high school or even college eligibility if their parents are falsifying their address. I have seen students lose NCAA scholarships because of parent address fraud. I just -- I can't even tell you how angry this makes me. Memail me and I will tell you about an FBI investigation into this kind of fraud. People go to jail. School administrators go to jail. In my state, school administrators complicit in this lose their jobs and have to pay back their salaries. This is really not okay and if local officials aren't interested, state or federal officials will be.

How big are the schools you're talking about, and are your children "average" or are they gifted or special ed? Are there "choice" schools in your district? What is the boundary waiver protocol? How many schools in your district qualified to accept boundary waivers? How many are at or above their enrollment limits? Feel free to memail me. This is a complicated question to answer without knowing more about your district or your student.

"The word is that the PTA and School Advisory Council are dismal. Parent participation and presence dismal. "

Can you run for school board?

"I have pondered, hypothetically, whether it would be strictly legal to instead rent a cheap room in a shared house (like a student house) in a good district in order to get genuine paperwork. That way its not fake, you do rent a room in that address."

Generally, no. You must be actually resident. There are rules for people with multiple residences in every state that I'm aware of, and they are pretty explicit. There are a lot of tuition dollars from the state (and feds) at stake that follow your student, which will make your "home" district want to keep your student; your "guest" district doesn't want you if you're paying the lion's share of your property taxes in your "home" district and not your "guest" district; and if your student is even a little involved in athletics I have seen coaches go all private eye on opposing teams' athletes and reporting the crap out of them for residency shenanigans. And their coaches. Even in the same district. So lots of people are looking to report you for this if they catch even a whiff of it. I have seen kindergarteners reported. Anyway, you can go to jail for this, and it's not just that one lady in the news story that gets passed around. People really do go to jail for this every year. Perhaps more importantly, it's a fraud conviction, which affects what jobs you can hold for the rest of your life and may impact your ability to hold any positions of fiduciary responsibility or public trust. In my state, you also typically get ordered to repay all of the "tuition" to the district that you defrauded, to the tune of around $11,000/year, even if you don't serve jail time, even if it was a pretty "minor" case. So, you know, don't.

posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:30 PM on August 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

The so-called "bad" schools aren't going to get any better if everyone flees to the suburbs.

PTA is abysmal? No parent participation? Why don't your husband and yourself get involved?

Wouldn't it be nice for your kids to rub shoulders with children from different socio-economic backgrounds? Running a shady scheme to get them into a "better" school is going to teach your kids all the wrong lessons about life, starting with lying and ending with a sense of entitlement.
posted by Pomo at 11:20 PM on August 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

PTA is abysmal? No parent participation? Why don't your husband and yourself get involved?

Because things will not improve over the time period during which the child is in school. Improving things takes way too long. The only way it works is if the parent gets involved years before the kids start school and if the neighborhood has like-minded parents that are moving to the town in droves and also want the schools to improve. On the latter issue, it seems like the opposite dynamic is going on where there is a movement of parents OUT of that school zone. Also, because it is Florida, there are not the same real estate pressures that result in gentrification and pressure from parents to improve the school districts that exist in places like LA, NYC, and DC.
posted by deanc at 4:53 AM on August 26, 2012

I think the chances of your getting busted for a false address are huge. They did a big address verification thing at the school near my house just now.

My quality of life wouldn't change much -- we would just have a longer mortgage payment.

So do it. Or rent. Or wait and see if your kids start having problems with the school and if they do, pull them out and take them to whatever private school you can find for the remainder of the year. Personally, I would hesitate to buy a house for the sake of any particular school because you can't be sure it will work out all that great.

The good news is you have the means to educate your children. It sounds like you're not even going to feel the pinch much. I think it sucks that there is such inequality but you don't have to be a victim.
posted by BibiRose at 6:03 AM on August 26, 2012

Both of my children go the the "bad" schools in our district. I worried about it until I realized they were getting a fantastic education. I have loved all of their teachers and almost all of their administrators.

What has really helped is that they are both gifted and are in gifted/honors classes. My oldest is in the International Baccalaureate program at her high school. They are both surrounded by kids that want to be at school and learning. Are there honors classes at these schools? Work to get your kids in those.

They have had a few minor issues with unruly kids, but I see that as a life lesson. They will have to deal with unpleasant people and tough situations later in life too. One other side benefit of a bad school is class ranking when its time to apply for college. Its much easier to get a higher rank with less competition.

I don't regret staying in my house now, and I often tell people how great our schools are. Your schools may also not be as bad as you think.
posted by Requiax at 9:57 AM on August 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

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