Parents Crave a 'Zagats' for Picking Schools

Guidebooks and consumer groups are springing up to help parents do comparative shopping for local schools

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When his family expanded beyond the capacity of their two-bedroom home, William Rice went shopping for a school.

"We were literally going to go find a school first and then ... find a house," says the father of three young children. But there was no readily available information to assess the quality of local schools.

In exasperation, Mr. Rice began collecting data on the 29 public school districts in the St. Louis area. He found the right place to move his growing family. But he didn't stop there. Last fall, he published his research results in "School Scorecard." The 17-page magazine sells for $8.95 and has become something of a local bestseller.

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"I can't believe how hot this thing is," says one St. Louis bookstore clerk between calls to other stores to find a copy. "It's just flown off the shelves."

As consumer-oriented parents like Rice start shopping for schools the same way they pick minivans, the American passion for rankings is spreading to local public schools. It's no longer enough to simply rely on test scores. They want comparisons, and they want details. How many books are in the library? What kind of computers line the classroom walls?

In many places, the trend is being fueled by the spread of school-choice plans. Parents no longer are restricted to the closest school, but can transfer their children between schools and in some cases, between school districts.

"There is a much more discriminating shopper for schools today," says Steve Rees, president of Publishing 20/20 in San Francisco. Mr. Rees is producing a series of guidebooks on schools in California where a 1994 law allows parents to send students to any school in the state. The first books, on San Francisco schools, came out in 1995. This fall, Rees plans to publish books on four more California counties. "We are hoping to become to schools what Zagat's is to restaurants," he says.

There is no national directory or source for these new guidebooks. Many are simply the fruits of a determined parent's labor. When Nancy Walser, a journalist in Cambridge, Mass., began thinking about sending her daughter to kindergarten, she viewed it as one more research project.

The lottery-based desegregation plan in Cambridge requires every parent to list their top three choices among 25 elementary programs in the city. "Most of my friends were just choosing schools based on hearsay and rumor," says Ms. Walser, who published the "Parent's Guide to Cambridge Schools" last year.

While Rice's book relies on statistical data such as test scores, per-pupil spending, and student-to-teacher ratios, Walser views her book as "an armchair travel piece." "Schools are so much more than numbers," she says. "I tried to provide a context as well as the numbers."

Rice agrees statistics don't tell the whole story, but short visits to schools aren't much help. "You get the 30-minute tour. Peek in a couple of classrooms and look at the art hanging on the walls. That is a step you should take, but it didn't provide enough information on which to base a decision of this magnitude."

He is amazed by the lack of complied information. "I can walk into B. Dalton [bookstore] and buy any of six or seven books on cars, refrigerators, or VCRs. But when it comes to getting the best education for my children, there's nothing that helps you out at all."

Much of the data in the guidebooks are ostensibly public information but "it is not always easy to get," Rees says. Some school districts are cooperative while others resist. "I'd been a reporter for 20 years and had covered wars and the Vatican...," says Clara Hemphill, author of "The Parents' Guide to the Best New York City Public Elementary Schools," due out this fall from SoHo Press. "But ... the Board of Education bureaucracy pretty much stumped me."

As the consumer orientation toward education grows, parents are banding together. The Education Consumers ClearingHouse, an Internet mailing list with some 300 subscribers (www.tricon.net/comm/educon), is proving that there is "an enormous thirst for accurate information about schools," says J.E. Stone, an education professor at East Tennessee State University, which maintains the year-old list.

In Tennessee, Ohio, Texas, Illinois, and California, parents are forming local education consumer organizations. "What we have here in local communities is a kind of grass-roots Dun & Bradstreet [for schools]," Mr. Stone says.

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