Where to Live for Good Schools

Parent Q&A

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  • Hi A type BPN parents - I started to create an analysis on the financial costs of buying a home in a "good" school district vs buying in an area that is less expensive but would require a private school.  Before I go down that path, I was hoping someone here knows of an article or blog or perhaps even created a spreadsheet on this topic already.  Ideally there would be some flexibility to make adjustments (private vs catholic, public school k-5 then private vs private all the way, etc...).  I'd also like to hear any thoughts on how the new Republican tax plan has skewed the equation towards private schools.  Thanks!

    We bought a house in Richmond seventeen years ago when you could hear gunfire in the night. Since then the neighborhood has improved immensely and the people who have moved in take care of their properties and are working class folks like the majority of people. We love our home and neighborhood although we wish there were more trees. That being said we have a daughter, now 14. For kindergarten we did private, the East Bay Waldorf School, which we did not like. Then Richmond public school for one year which was overcrowded, an ugly cement pad, and not diverse enough, meaning that because my daughter was the only white/Asian kid in the class she was excluded terribly. Since then we have been commuting her to a Marin Charter school with about 375 kids, very diverse, first through eighth and have been happy overall. Now we must move to get her into a good public high school in Marin so she can continue on with her mates. The gas, traffic, bridge toll has been expensive but it has been cheaper than private school. And we will rent out our home while she is in high school. Why so much effort and work? Because after much research, I am still not confidant in Richmond schools, even the new charter's that are turning education into a business. And being in a small school, and not on a bus either unsupervised has shielded her from the cigarettes, drugs and alcohol that many middle schoolers, are experiencing in bigger schools. 

    Ha, I do have a spreadsheet on this! (I guess that means I qualify as Type A?) Basically, it maps out our housing costs over time, factoring in things like Prop 13 increases, tax deductions (yay, forgot that I have to go update it post-GOP tax bill...) and other costs of ownership. Mine is intended primarily to track our "real" cost of housing over time so we can understand what owning a home actually costs (a lot!), but I copied it and plugged in theoretical numbers for a new house when we contemplated moving. It has a column for our annual income and columns for the cost of school/childcare. That gives me a high level sense of what we spend monthly as a percent of our income and how school costs affect that. Broadly, the GOP tax plan affects this math in a few ways: first, because of the changes in the SALT deductions, the same house costs you considerably more annually since you can no longer deduct all of your property tax (and probably not all of your mortgage interest, with current prices!) Second, you can now pay for K-12 tuition from a 529 plan, which is beneficial if you have enough savings to be able to front load contributions to such a plan (i.e., put in the maximum for the next seven years now and allow it to grow tax-free). Since California doesn't offer any other tax advantages for 529 plans, though, it's more or less moot if you aren't in a position to make a large upfront contribution. How these changes will affect private schools is still hard to predict, but in the Bay Area, I do think we'll see more people staying put in houses that they might otherwise have sold, since the Prop 13 tax advantages coupled with the inability to fully deduct interest from larger mortgages and property taxes make moving even more costly in a market that was tough to start with. On the flip side, that might finally put some downward pressure on home prices. We'll have to wait and see.

    The last part first. The new tax act favors private schools in one way which does not apply to many parents: it permits 527 plan funds to be spent for elementary and high school tuition, not just college.  That  does not help many parents, since a really huge investment (not deductible) is required to generate enough return on investment (tax free) to even pay for tuition. RonLieber (The Opposite of Spoiled), author, blogger, had an analysis on a recent post with a hypothetical donor (parent, grandparent) who invested $200,000 under the new law, the return on investment of which was tax free, and paid for private school tuition. Not an option for anyone I know, none of my clients, nor most BPN readers.

    If you buy in Berkeley, all schools are equally better than average. If you can afford Piedmont, the schools are great!

    Once in middle school kids will be very influenced by their peer group, so this is a very important decision you are making.

    Good luck

    Hi - this is the original poster. Would the person who created the spreadsheet share it, perhaps on google docs?  Thanks!

    We were going to do this sort of math and then focused our efforts on purchasing in a good school district (which was not without a considerable amount of stress and financial strain). We couldn't put a price on non-financials like transportation to/from school, friends that are all over the Bay, unknowns about before/after care with some private schools, stress of testing and applying to schools, and an unknown of really what schools will cost by the time our child is of school age. I'd make sure you figure out which of these (and others) are critical to you and include them in some fashion. Good luck!

Archived Q&A and Reviews


    Family friendly East Bay neighborhoods w/ great schools

    Oct 2013

    Hi there. Our family is relocating to the Bay Area from Rocklin, and I'm hoping to get some advice on schools and neighborhoods. We have some flexibility regarding which community we live in, long as we're living in the East Bay. We have three children (ages 6, 8 and 10), and finding fantastic elementary and middle schools are our primary concern. Our current school has wonderful teachers, a very involved principal and a great sense of community. We'd love to find something similar. We're also concerned about class sizes and finding a school that has a good balance between strong academics and nurturing the ''whole'' child. We are primarily looking in Castro Valley, San Ramon, Danville and maybe Alamo and Lafayette. If anyone can make recommendations about specific schools in those areas, we would be very thankful. We would also love to find a family friendly neighborhood; somewhere that's safe, with lots of kids. Again, any recommendations on this front would be appreciated as well. Anxious about our move

    If you haven't considered Alameda in your search it is definitely worth doing! Super family friendly neighborhoods where kids can safely play, ride bikes, etc, high quality neighborhood public schools from K through 12 with high parental and community involvement, and additional school choices in the form of respected charter schools and private schools (at elementary, middle, and high school levels). Alameda is a fantastic community for families! Karie

    You might also consider Orinda or Moraga as having great schools and being family friendly probably around the same cost as Lafayette. Good luck with your move! anon


    Do middle and high school matter when choosing a neighborhood?

    Aug 2012

    I've read through many recommendations for great areas to live and noticed that all recommendations/questions focus on finding a great elementary school. Do middle and high school not matter as much? Does everyone go to private school? We have been looking for a house to buy in the East Bay and in our price range we find many nice houses zoned for good elementary schools and not-so-good middle or high schools. For example the Redwood Heights neighborhood of Oakland has a highly rated elementary school, but the middle school these students are funneled to, Bret Harte, does not perform well (at least on paper). Having only pre-school aged children, we rely on the ratings/reviews/API scores to give us guidance- knowing that it is only part of the larger picture of future academic success for kids. Is it really about finding the sweet spot of a home zoned for great schools K-12th schools or is there something I'm missing. Any insight/ experience you would have to share would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

    When you're looking for a home while your child is still young (in some cases, non-existent), middle and high school are just too far away - both realistically and theoretically. An infinite number of life events can take place by the time your child is ready for middle, so it's easier and more practical to focus on what's coming first. And the schools can change a LOT in either direction by the time your child is ready as well. Bad schools improve, good schools suffer. Politics, budgets, climate, etc.

    Having said that, in the Bay Area, many children do go private for middle and/or high school. I'm only speaking from personal experience as an OUSD parent in the Chabot/Claremont/Tech area. I'm sure someone has hard data somewhere. So, to answer your questions: 1) ''Do middle and high school not matter as much?'' - Yes, they do, even more so because by then your child has much more particular needs, skills, interests, issues. But that could mean choosing a charter, moving to another district for public, transferring to another in-district school, getting more involved in their local, or paying for private. and 2) ''Is it really about finding the sweet spot of a home zoned for great schools K-12th schools or is there something I'm missing.'' Some folks have found a 'sweet spot' that works great for their family, but it's rare because frankly, we're not all the same and our kids' needs get more refined.

    But what you can do: If you love the house and the elementary school, ease into getting involved in the middle and/or high schools, get to know what's going on, and if you feel compelled, start volunteering and getting things to change. That is how ALL the ''good'' schools got to be so good - by parents getting involved. I see it happening with a few families at Claremont. They see their time and effort as an important investment in their young children's future. And ALL middle schools really suffer a drop off in parent involvement, so your help should be extremely welcome! Mom of Two

    Our kids are still in early elementary school too but I think you will find the answer varies widely. Obviously... not ''everyone'' can go to private school! I know some parents who have had their kids just tough it out at a not-so-great middle school, then get a scholarship for private high school. Others with more resources opt to start private school earlier on. And, even some high earning families I know chose Oakland public high schools including Skyline, Oakland Tech, and charter schools. Ultimately it's hard to say before your child starts school, what type of high school will work for your family. That said, we chose our home based on both elementary and middle schools we liked, at least ''on paper'' as you say, figuring high school was too far off to gauge.

    I only saw two responses to your original question, so thought I would chime in as well. As one person responded, the answer does vary widely depending on each family's particular situation and needs. When we were originally house-hunting, we were initially looking in Oakland as well. However, after thinking long and hard about it, we knew that we wouldn't be able to swing the cost of private school and did not want to be in the position of perhaps having to move after elementary. As a result, we ended up buying a house in Moraga, which has great public schools all the way through 12th. I grew up in Oakland and attended Oakland public schools all the way through, so this wasn't an easy decision for me. But we have been very happy with our decision, our kids have thrived so far in their elementary and middle school, with high school coming up this year for our oldest. When I think about the cost that other friends are paying for their kids to attend private middle and high schools, I am very happy that we do not have to worry about that, as the costs seem pretty astronomical given our budget. We also have friends who did choose to send their kids to middle school in Oakland and they have been happy as well. So there is no right answer, just what works best for your family. Good luck with your decision and your home search! Happy in Moraga

    I think there are many factors - partly that there are many folks who get money from somewhere or someone to cover private school - so they don't worry. Excellent districts - Lamorinda - don't change drastically. Districts that are shaky to begin with may. I think the state of school funding in California is so appaling that just about anything could happen. Except affluent areas (Lamorinda, parts of Walnut Creek, areas of the south bay) will get by - areas of more mixed populations may suffer. We have a child in 2nd and one who has one more year before K - sure, lots could happen but I have no desire to move again so we will be evaluating HS and middle school and it will likey add $50 to $100k to the cost of our house. To me, it is worth it because $25k a year for high school x 2 kids is not going to happen on our income. Thinking ahead

    Moving vs. private school - how to make the decision?

    September 2006

    Hi - My family and I are trying to assess whether we should stay in our current home in San Leandro (where our public school is sub- par, and we didn't get the intra-district transfer)and pay for private school, or try to move somewhere (considerably more expensive) where we feel good about sending our two kids to public school. We're somewhat overwhelmed trying to get a handle on all the economic variables, some of which are unknown,at least for now (real estate market fluctuation, property tax, interest deductions, private school tuition, financial aid). Can anyone tell me how they approached this decision? Did you use a financial planner? I realize there's no way to make this decision with total accuracy, but want to gather as much info as possible. I'd really appreciate hearing about others' thought processes, as well as their end results. . . thank you!
    In a conundrum

    I think if you begin by renting in a town with good schools you will be able to learn about the neighborhoods, the town, all the while your kids would be able to attend the schools. We love it in Orinda, but I grew up in the area so was familiar with Lamorinda (Lafayette, Moraga, Orinda) before we bought. Of course, if you can afford to buy in a place with good schools then by all means buy.

    One reason we like it here is because so many residents value education, whether wealthy or not. Lamorinda is beautiful with lots of open space. Most families donate money to the schools which isn't nearly as much as the high cost of private schools.
    Happy Resident

    Hi: I have a spreadsheet I developed for clients considering Piedmont public schools vs. living elsewhere w/ private schools. You can set your own variables for your tax rate, etc. Home prices are based on the average 3/2 in Piedmont and same zip-Oakland in 2004, but can be changed. Of course one has to have the downpayment/credit to make a move, but absent that, the key ''aha'' is that a home purchase is an investment (with eventual return) while private education is an expenditure with no return (other than the educational benefits, of course). I'd note that Piedmont prices, at least, have been flat for more than a year, while private school tuition continues to increase at 7% a year . . . . Maureen

    This is a hard one. Basically, (I have been told and now beleive) if you have 2 children, it makes economic ''sense'' to move to where the schools are ''better'', when you consider the increased home prices and property taxes (with the assumption that your children would be in private schools in San Leandro).

    You have to figure you'll need to pay about (gasp!) $700,000- $1,000,000 + in areas where the public schools are considered ''good''. But dont forget to factor in all of the equity you have in your current home, yet to sell. We purchased our first home in Lamorinda because I wanted my children to attend public schools. We couldn't be happier with how it is going. We still have to make small contributions to the PTA, to the classroom and give our time, but parents generally do enthusiastically, so it works out well for everyone. We have attended private school and I must say that I appreciate the economic and ethnic diversity that you find in public school. Also consider that when you attend your neighborhood public school, your child will form friendships with children who live within walking distance of your home. Families that attend private schools commute from different cities/further distances. That affects their availability for (and ease of) playdates and their availability to participate with your children in organized activities such as team sports and cub scouts.

    And when looking at private school tuition, I would factor in that your school will likely depend greatly on family monetary donations and support. Perhaps several thousand dollars annually...

    We made the move and we are so happy to be here. It is nice to know that private schools in the area are a second option for us if the public schools don't end up working out for us. Best to you in your decision.

    Should I move to the suburbs for the schools?

    Feb 2003

    I'm looking for suggestions on areas to move our kids that have great schools. I welcome information about Lamorinda, Walnut Creek, San Ramon and Castro Valley. I have read the discussions on the parents network about about san ramon, CV and San leandro, didn't see much about Lamorinda. Oakland is still a possibility and we're in the Kaiser elem school district, any comments about Kaiser elementary school? I haven't heard much and the school scores are a bit low. Jennifer

    I don't know if it's the solution for you, but moving to Lafayette was the best thing we did. We were living in the N. Oakland Hills and were in the Kaiser district. I don't know anything about that school but wasn't thrilled with the prospect of Oakland schools in general (not an educated opinion I admit) or Oakland Tech. We ended up in Lafayette for it's schools, for their arts and science foundation and the community. Our son is now in 2nd grade at the downtown school, Lafayette elementary and started there with kindergarten. Our second son is in preschool still. The teachers, principal and support staff are amazing, very hands-on and concerned and knows every family by face and name. The foundation LASF is funded by contributions from families and community to the tune of $750k - 1mm a year. It supplies additional music, art and science programs to the 4 elementary, 1 middle and 1 high schools. There is a meeting tonight about the school budgets and what we can do to lessen the impact. Most parents I've spoken with are going. Finally the community is totally family oriented. You can go anywhere with your kids without people looking funny at you and can get whatever services and activities you can dream of. We were ones that said we never would go over the hill, but are very happy about it now. Life is much easier where we are. Linda

    Moving to the suburbs is NEVER the answer - to any question! That said, I can commiserate with you over the mixed quality of the Oakland School district. However, many in our neighborhood have been working hard with the local elementary school (Glenview, Oakland) - becoming involved in many ways on a grass roots level - and the school has improved as a result (in state scores, as well as in the opinions of folks in the area!) So, please stay in the city and attempt to work with the people in your neighborhood and with the school itself - you can affect change! Don't join the rest of the country and abandon our wonderful cities - they get better when people stay and want them to improve. (Sorry to rant - but this is my particular soap box topic!) A City Mama

    I say no, it's not always the right answer to move to the suburbs. My husband and I choose live in Oakland, with our toddler. My parents moved to Lamorinda when I was 9 (from the other side of the tunnel) for the schools, and we agree it was one of the worst things we did.

    On the positive side, the area is beautiful and ''safe'', etc. Also, it's true that there is alot of parent involvement in the schools. So much so, that friends of mine who teach in Lamorinda complain that the parents are over-involved (aka over-bearing). And, there is a lot of pressure for each family to contribute to the ''foundation'' (I think the going rate is at least 1000$/yr). I bet Oakland schools would be better, if there was a community foundation to support them!

    On the negative side, the schools are almost like a factory to get kids into the UC system when they graduate (kids are pressured to take certain UC-favored courses in high school at the expense of other classes and interests).

    While I can't speak yet as to the quality of the public schools, I just wanted to put in a good word for Walnut Creek as a family-oriented community. We moved here from SF 7 years ago and I was not sure we were making the right decision, but we really grew to like Walnut Creek so much. It's so nice having Mt. Diablo right here. There are kids everywhere, lots of great parks here and near to here. From what I understand the public schools are better in Lafayette, but it's much more expensive to live in Lafayette (not that it's inexpensive in Walnut Creek, as I can attest now that we are looking to buy a bigger house!). We like downtown Walnut Creek - can't beat the shopping! And there are plenty of good, non-chain restaurants here as well. Our daughter will be attending a private elementary school in Lafayette, but will switch to public school when she hits middle school. We expect to remain in Walnut Creek (or Lamorinda) through her high school years. LB

    Socially it's a very tough place in so many ways. Money and wealth is a huge issue that kids get judged on-- from the cars they drive to the clothes they wear and where they go during ski week. I still maintain friendships with friends from high school, and I was friendly with lots of different groups. However, when a girl murders another girl because of a popularity quest (this happended in the 80's to my classmate), then I'd say the community as a whole has issues.

    If people stopped moving ''because of the schools'', and worked as hard as the Lamorinda parents (many of whom were living in Oakland and Berkeley and miss the city!) to improve what we have here in Oakland/Berkeley, I bet we could all make a huge difference AND like where we live! (As a previous person wrote, sory to get rant, but this is also something that I think is really important!) --Another City Mama