"Grading School Systems to Match Transferees' Needs." By William L. Bainbridge.
Personnel Journal. May 1987.


By William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D. and Steven M. Sundre, Ph.D.

There are 15,892 public school systems in the United States. Consequently, relocated employees have many choices in selecting neighborhoods based on educational preferences—frequently more than they realize, and occasionally more than they desire.

For example, within a 60-mile radius of Trenton, New Jersey, there are 598 public school systems; within 10 miles of Barrington, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago, there are 55 public school systems.

Although all regions of the country do not have this vast number of choices, these examples are typical of most metropolitan areas.

Rural educational opportunities are manifold, too. Places in the rural midwest have more than 20 school systems within a 20 mile radius of a small town.

As a result of this multitude of school choices, it’s easy for the better options to get lost in the shuffle when relocating families are using education as a guiding factor in determining specific communities.

In turning to the systems that "we’ve heard about" or "our fellow employees have told us are good," the relocating family may well find a good school system, but it may not find the school system that is a good match for its needs.

Some families prefer to live in a large school system, while others prefer to send their children to a smaller, more personalized school system.

Some families want their children in a school system with a highly competitive academic atmosphere, and others feel it is better for their children to be in a setting not so rigorous.

Some families prefer to live within a school system in which the home property values and the per capita income are relatively high, while others prefer to live in a "good" school system with a more moderate cost of living.

In essence, all needs and tastes in selecting an educational environment are not the same: Quality education and family lifestyle preferences are inextricably intertwined.

Subsequently, if a family relies on test scores and public reputation as the primary guide to finding the right school system, it limits itself to a small number of choices and, in turn, may be disappointed because other needs aren’t met.

In most parts of the country, school systems that have a reputation for being "good" are immediately listed by community residents. And in the majority of cases, these are good school systems.

There are, however, many other good school systems available to a relocating family that are just as good and, in fact, may be more compatible with that particular family’s background and current educational needs.

To identify a good school system that is compatible with its needs, the relocating family must first determine what it wants: People need to develop a profile of the kind of school system with which they feel most comfortable.

In doing so, they think about and develop a set of priorities about what is really important and what is only relatively important, based on personal experiences.

A School System’s Personality is Multi-Dimensional

When relocating families with school-age children are considering school systems as a determinant for residence, the first thing they should do is make a comprehensive list of school systems that are within a comfortable commuting range for the employed head of household.

Next, the family needs to assess which of those potential school systems best meets its needs and preferences. To measure compatibility, the relocating family needs to address several concerns about school systems in general and prioritize what aspects are important and unimportant to them.

In addressing the following concerns, a relocating family is able to obtain a relatively accurate reflection of a school system’s personality.

School building size. There is potential for confusion when considering school building size and the next aspect, school system size. The two are quite different and the distinctions are very important.

When choosing school building size, a family is making a choice about staffing and pupil instruction. Large school buildings, for example, provide advantages in terms of breadth of course offerings and extra-curricular activities.

For every choice that is made, on every question, there is a trade-off, i.e., when choosing a small school building, what may be gained in personalized instruction may be lost in breadth of course offerings.

School system size. The size of the school system generally does not have as much impact on the day-to-day activities of the student as does the size of the school building. School system size, however, may have some impact on ease of access to school board members and central administrators, and certain course offerings in areas such as the fine arts, vocational education, and other specialized fields.

In a smaller school system, for example, although a family may have more of a say in the policy decisions of the board of education and the school administration, it may limit its children’s opportunities for certain specialized educational programs that are unavailable in such smaller systems.

Pupil performance on scholarship examinations. This question is another example of the trade-offs and limitations involved in selecting a system. Although at first glance a family might be tempted to select a school system that produces students who rank very high on nationally accepted tests, what the family, or student, is probably not getting a crack at all of the systems that provide a quality education. What it may be getting is a district with a more competitive atmosphere.

School system awards. In recent years, various philanthropic organizations, and state and federal governments, have begun recognizing and rewarding schools for meritorious achievement. These types of recognition are limited nationally to a small number of school systems.

If a family believes school system awards are indicators of quality education, it’ll want to relocate within a school system possessing these characteristics. This criterion alone for picking a school system, however, limits the family to a small number of systems.

Elementary school accreditation. One indicator of recognition, limited to a small number of schools, is the accreditation of elementary schools. Although the accreditation process has been in place for quite some time at the high school level, it is a relatively new phenomenon at the elementary school level. As a result, few elementary schools are currently accredited.

If a family uses elementary school accreditation as an indicator of quality education, it must again realize that it is limiting its choices.

Children enrolled in public schools. Nearly all school systems in the U.S. enroll the majority of school-age children within their boundaries. Additionally, the percentage of families who elect to send their children to private schools varies significantly from school system to school system.

Some families prefer to live in a community in which most of the children attend public schools, while others prefer to reside in an area in which a relatively high percentage of the children attend private schools.

School system expenditures. As with many other public institutions, schools systems are dependent upon public financial support in their effort to achieve success. Many families have string feelings about this subject: Some feel schools spend too much money in certain areas, while others feel they don’t spend enough.

The six major areas of school system expenditures include:

    • Pupil instruction
    • Teachers’ salaries
    • Library and media services
    • School buildings and facilities
    • Guidance and counseling
    • Psychological services

The amount spent, or concentration of the system’s budget, in any one of these areas can indicate several things about a district, including the amount of financial support available and the system’s own educational priorities.

Special education programs. Many parents of handicapped students are concerned about the availability, comprehensiveness, and proximity of special programs for their children. In some schools all of the programs are self-contained, or available within the school system itself. In others, the handicapped students are transported outside the school system in order to gain access to a full curriculum of educational programming.

Vocational/technical education expenditures. The availability of vocational education in this country has become a very important educational resource for many families. Some school systems have developed comprehensive, system-wide vocational education programs for students, while others have opted to send their vocational education students to regional vocational education centers.

As is the case with special education programs, the choice between self-contained versus off-site vocational education programs is an important consideration for many families.

Pupil/teacher ratio. Educational research experts do not agree on the cause-and-effect relationship between academic achievement and class size. Parents, on the other hand, frequently have quite strong beliefs in this area. Some feel that small class size, or low pupil/teacher ratio, is conducive to more personalized instruction. Others prefer the increased diversity and competition that frequents larger classes and believe it’s better preparation for similar environments in college.

Percentage of families with school-age children. As population shifts and residential developments grow, some school systems tend to attract many young families with school-age children; others do not.

Some established communities are places in which people raise their children but remain in residence after their children leave. This leads to a declining percentage of school-age children.

Home property values in the school system. When a family relocates, it usually has some leeway in its decision concerning the type of community in which it wishes to reside. Some families prefer communities with high property values, while other families want an area in which the values are not as high.

School system per capita income. As with home property values, school system per capita income is a family lifestyle consideration as much as it is a reflection of the kind of school system that exists within a particular area. Many families gravitate toward what is comfortable and affordable.

Education level of school system residents. While the education level of the residents within a school system is yet another reflection of the environment and lifestyle of the community, it also can be an indicator of the availability of certain specialized educational programs.

School system tax base. There are many different types of tax systems used to finance education. In fact, there are probably about as many ways of financing school systems as there are state educational systems. In some states, any tax increase requires a vote of the people; in others, a school board, city council or other municipal body controls taxes. Generally, a school system’s tax base is a reflection of the amount of taxes paid by the taxpayers of that particular school system.

Finding a "good" system has more to do with the personality of that school system than with any specific indicator. Although pupil/teacher ratios and test scores, for example, are valuable indicators of what a system is like, they are only two of many factors that create its personality.

If a family can match that personality with its own needs and desires, the chances of making a good choice are greatly enhanced. Taken together, these leading indicators serve as the building blocks for assessing the personality of the kind of school system that is likely to be most compatible with the needs of the relocating family.

The more time a family spends thinking about these indicators and trade-offs involved, the more comfortable it will be with its final choice of school system and the community in which it ultimately relocates.

William L. Bainbridge, Ph.D., and Steven M. Sundre, Ph.D. are principals of a firm that has created a national database and information service about school systems in the United States.