A few years ago, the Crews family, unhappy with the education their children were getting in Reston, decided to pack up and move to closer-in northern Fairfax, where the schools are widely regarded as among the best in the area.
But somewhere in the maze of Fairfax County's school district boundaries, the Crews lost their way. They were very happy with the house they bought, but when the time came to enroll their oldest child in Cooper Intermediate School, they found they were in the "wrong" district.
They asked about a transfer, but officials told them it would be allowed only if they furnished a medical statement declaring that the child would suffer "severe and long-term psychological damage."
Rather than have that on their child's record, and facing a deadline for registration, the Crews (not their real name) rushed out and bought another house.
"We bought what we could with very little down, almost overnight," Mrs. Crews explained.
The new address got them into the school district they wanted but the house itself "was too small and backed up to the Beltway."
So the family moved again, taking out second mortgages on both of their earlier houses to finance a larger house in the Cooper Intermediate and Langley High districts.
"We couldn't make all the pay-ments," she said. "When efforts to sell the first two houses failed, partly because of last year's high interest rates and school districts, we turned the houses back over to the second trust holders," Mrs. Crews said.
The family now has a nice house in one of the county's "best" school districts. "But we lost all our equity in both houses," Mrs. Crews said, and "we wrecked our credit rating along the way."
While few families go to such lengths to get their children into the "right" school districts, there is little question that schools remain a major consideration in the neighborhoods home buyers choose and prices they pay.
A desirable district can add $20,000 to $50,000 to the price of a house, according to real estate professionals here. And they note that buyers are increasingly conscious of the reputation of intermediate and even elementary schools, as these are perceived as putting children on the right "track" to, as one agent put it, "Harvard and an M.D." degree.
The scramble is perhaps most obvious in northern Fairfax along both sides of the Leesburg Pike from the city of Falls Church to the Loudoun County line.
Even though real estate professionals say agents are ethically bound not to push one school over another, school districts are boldly emphasized in real estate ads. Agents often pass out copies of standardized test scores and school rankings at open houses on Sunday afternoons.
"Test scores are a matter of public record," said Sally Swanson, a Shannon and Luchs agent. "A lot of people come in knowing the schools. Maybe they can't afford what they would like in McLean, but they will compromise, buy a lesser house to get into a good school district."
"There is no question you can get more house for your money in Robinson High School district than in Langley," explains Dale Gabardy, a broker in the Burke office of Better Homes Realty. "Potential buyers specify schools," emphasized agent Rachel Taylor.
A weekend survey of current property on the market produced some examples of several types of homes on the market in various school districts. Agents contacted said schools play a major factor. "It is often the first question they ask," said an agent showing a house in Great Falls.
For sale on Vernons Oak Court near the Burke Center Parkway in the Robinson district is a four-bedroom, 2 1/2-bath colonial with a full walkout basement. The price is $129,000, according to listing agent Didi Rogers of Laughlin Realty. "The same house in Vienna would sell for at least $165,000 and over $200,000 in the Langley or McLean High districts," she said.
In contrast, Sharon and Jerry Regier have their older, bi-level house on close-in Mayflower Drive in the McLean school district on the market for $159,000. It is competitive because it has an addition with a big kitchen, is in a top school district and is close to public transportation. The house would bring $30,000 less if it were not in a good school district, one agent said.
School officials, educators and some parents are not happy with what amounts to a bidding war for certain schools. They say it exacerbates the patterns of economic segregation that tend to occur in any community, and sometimes creates elitist attitudes among the students that many believe are out of place in a public school.
Indeed some people, including at least one Fairfax County school official, have opted to live in Arlington where the schools offer a wider economic mix of students.
In addition, test scores, which many home buyers rely on, "are only a part of the overall picture," warned Todd Endo, director of Research and Evaluation for Fairfax County Schools. Selecting a school for a child based solely on the basis of test scores would be a narrow focus, Endo said.
"Would you buy a car solely on the miles per gallon? Would you select a hospital solely on the number of diplomas hanging on the walls?"
Endo also said test scores don't always reflect the job teachers or a particular school may be doing. In some cases, he said, standardized tests are given to one school that may have a lot of GT (gifted/talented) students and also to a school with lots of children with varying degrees of handicaps. Test scores also can be misread when school boundaries are changed from one year to the next, Endo said.
But these reservations cut little ice with the buying public or with realty agents, who figure their job is to sell houses--not to help the county maintain a certain economic mix.
"It makes us want to gnash our teeth out if you want to know the truth," said Ann Briggs, an area educational facilities planner for Montgomery County. Briggs doesn't like to see one school touted over another, for example Walt Whitman High in Bethesda over Winston Churchill High in Potomac over Bethesda Chevy Chase (BCC), an older facility.
She points to "fine programs" all over the county. Even though core studies are the same, "many schools have outstanding individual programs. Northwood High School in Silver Spring is known for an outstanding writing program" that produces a lot of budding writers able to get their poetry published. "Blair High in lower Silver Spring has more course offerings than any school around."
But in close-in Montgomery County, it's a major choice for parents who are looking to buy a house in what they've heard "is the best school district."
Bob Grigg, vice president of Leigh & Schwab, which specializes in close-in Montgomery County and Northwest Washington real estate, said potential home buyers can get into Walt Whitman High School, perhaps in a small rambler "maybe with one bath" for less than $130,000.
Whitman, located off River Road in Bethesda, has been touted nationally for its scholastic achievements. The school's most recent verbal SAT averge score was 518 and the average math score was 549, according to a guide put out by the College Board.
In the D.C. neighborhoods where his firm operates, Grigg said the "most sought after school is Woodrow Wilson."
"It has magnificent facilities, It's grand and elegant. It probably beats anything in the Washington suburban area," Grigg said.
However, others in the real estate profession agree that the school systems of the District, at least east of Rock Creek Park, and to a lesser extent Prince George's County, are major factors in holding down home prices in those areas.
"I can show you a 3,000-square-foot, solidly built older town house in Northeast D.C., where the crime is no worse than Georgetown and you can get to work in 15 minutes, and it'll cost you less than half of what you'd have to pay for half the space an hour from downtown," said one agent. "But people just don't want to send their kids to those schools."
The investment, both psychological and economic, that families have in the "better" school districts also makes the subject of boundary changes touchier than ever. Even homeowners who do not have school-age children are drawn into the fray because a boundary shift can sharply affect the resale value of their house.