It’s a common question and virtually every agent has heard it at one time or another. Jay Thompson explains why it’s so problematic (hint, hint: steering) and how you can avoid answering it.

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This article was last updated February 24, 2022.

Jay Thompson is a former brokerage owner who spent over six years working for Zillow Group. He retired in August 2018 but can’t seem to leave the real estate industry behind. His weekly Inman column publishes every Wednesday.

We’ve all been asked the question, “Are the schools good in this neighborhood.” There are a host of implications, assumptions and potential problems behind the question and behind the answer.

Although my pre-licensing class took place over 16 years ago, I still remember instructors pounding into my head, “Don’t answer that question!” My broker soon followed with the same statement, followed by a litany of other topics and questions to which I could never speak. 

“Well, what can I tell clients?” wondered the freshly minted licensee. “Sounds like all I can do is open the door and point them to websites for answers. If I’m supposed to be a ‘neighborhood expert,’ shouldn’t I be able to answer fundamental questions about the neighborhood?”

“Be the source of the source. Don’t get yourself into fair housing and discrimination trouble,” is what my broker, and pretty much everyone else, answers. 

Answering a client with, “I can’t tell you,” and “I’m not allowed to discuss this,” understandably leads to frustration and likely makes the client ponder, “Well, what are you good for then?” 

That’s not really what you want a client pondering. 

A difficult question to answer 

“Are the schools good?” seems, on the surface, to be a relatively easy question to answer. Sites like abound, all tasked with ranking and rating elementary, middle and high schools. The problem with these sites is they tend to focus heavily (often exclusively) on standardized test performance.  

There is more to a “good school” than test scores.  

My two children are a product of the public school system, including charter schools, which are public in Arizona where they attended through high school. Though they got their DNA from the same two parents, they couldn’t be more different in what they needed from their schools beginning at a very early age.

Granted, I am biased, but both kids are scary smart (they take after their mother), and they learn in very different ways, which isn’t unusual by any stretch of the imagination.

Like many people, my wife and I bought the house we would raise our children in based largely on the quality of the local schools. Quality we discovered through websites (though there were far fewer of those back in the day), touring and interviewing school officials.  

Their first elementary school was very well-regarded. We expected no issues with the education they would receive. Our expectations were incorrect.  

A prime example: Our daughter was a voracious reader at a very young age. In first grade, she was reading at a fifth-grade level. She came home in tears one day with a reading list — a list full of first-grade level books with a handful of second-grade level titles. 

“I’ve read most of these. I don’t want to read little kid books,” she said. She wanted to read Harry Potter books (generally said to be 5-6 grade level) and be challenged with more difficult reading and more in-depth stories. 

So we met with her teacher to inquire about offering her more challenging reading material. Wonderful as she was, school district rules tied her hands. It was astounding to us, but the rule was that the school gave kids grade-level reading lists, no matter what level they could read and comprehend. 

Yes, it’s moronic, but that was the rule — in a “great” school no less. 

Meanwhile, our son, who at the time couldn’t care less about reading, wanted to play chess as an extracurricular activity. The kid was a whiz at the game, soundly crushing his father when he was six. (Ever been smoked at the chessboard by a 6-year-old? It’s a pretty humiliating feeling.) 

We found a charter school with an “open” reading policy and a unique scholastic chess program. 

Schools aren’t one-size-fits-all. Kids aren’t the same. Sure, test scores are essential, but so are many other things. Class size, teacher qualifications and experience, graduation rates, social interaction, college preparation, extracurricular activities, special education, and handling of “special needs children” — all of these matter.

Then there is the simple, yet often overlooked, fact that not every kid wants to or even should attend college. High schools tend to focus on college prep, often touting how many of their graduates go to Ivy League colleges. 

What about the kid that has more desire and drive to attend a trade school? They are horribly neglected. 

School ranking sites barely graze the surface of what makes a school right for a specific child. That’s all they can do. 

What makes a school “good” to you might be very different for someone else. So, “are the schools good?” is a complicated question to answer.

Then, steering and discrimination raise their ugly heads.

Fraught with trouble

Since its release date, I’ve encouraged people to read and watch the videos of the Newsday investigation on discrimination in real estate, “Long Island Divided.” You should also put down whatever you are reading now and pick up The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein.

Both of these provide valuable insight into racial discrimination and steering in the real estate industry. Of course, you don’t discriminate or steer, but don’t bury your head in the sand and deny that it happens in our beloved industry. It does, you need to understand that, and you need to work to stop it.  

Talking about schools with clients can lead to steering — of both the intentional and unintentional varieties. You need to, you must, provide the same information on schools to every single client. Otherwise, you might very well be complicit in steering, despite your true and best intentions. 

This is precisely why most brokers, trainers, mentors and instructors say it’s best not to discuss schools at all, and at most, just point clients to a ranking site. Yet, in many ways, this does a disservice to your clients. It’s quite the conundrum.

Enter the National Association of Realtors (NAR)

As Inman recently reported in “Schools front and center in NAR anti-steering strategy,” NAR is working on creating more accurate third-party information on school quality beyond test scores. 

You probably think pointing people to third-party school ranking sites is the right thing to do. After all, that’s been preached to you since pre-licensing class. But the inherent flaws in ranking based on test scores invites discrimination, however unintended it might be.

The NAR wants to address this issue.

Bryan Greene, NAR’s director of fair housing, told Inman, “We want to help ensure that the agents and the public have access to objective information about schools that will help them choose a neighborhood and school based on their families’ needs and preferences, and not on neighborhood demographics or subjective impressions.”

Often maligned by some, the NAR’s efforts here should be applauded and supported. Change is desperately needed. You need better info; consumers need better information. Understanding area schools is a critical need for many homebuyers; there’s no reason a real estate professional can’t help their clients if armed with non-discriminatory, objective information. 

See also: Nicole White and Byron Lazine’s thoughts on The Real Word.  

Jay Thompson is a real estate veteran and retiree living in the Texas Coastal Bend, as well as the one spinning the wheels at Now Pondering. Follow him on FacebookInstagram and Twitter. He holds an active Arizona broker’s license with eXp Realty. “Retired but not dead,” Jay speaks around the world on many things real estate.

Jay Thompson
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