The cost of a guaranteed spot in a DCPS elementary school

In most parts of the District, people who wish to buy a home face an expensive housing market.  The costs become even higher if you want to buy within the boundaries of a high performing public school so your children have the right to attend that school.

We found that a typical three-bedroom home in the attendance zone of a DCPS elementary school with the very top test scores – places where 80 percent or more students are proficient or advanced in reading – will cost over $800,000, and that is just the median price and does not incorporate post-purchase improvements to homes. In DCPS elementary school zones where 60 to 80 percent of students are proficient or advanced in reading, the median sale price of a three-bedroom home ranges from the high $600,000’s to over $1 million.  Not until you look at schools where 45 to 60 percent of students are proficient or advanced in reading will you find a wide range of median home prices, including several below $650,000.

The graph below shows the median sale prices of all three-bedroom homes sold in the District during the past year, grouped by the new DCPS elementary school attendance zones that go into effect this fall. We plot them against the reading test scores in each school attendance zone. As you can see, home prices tend to be higher in attendance zones with higher test scores.

(view interactive here)scatter plot

The maps below show two different ways to sift through this data, one that begins with the buyer’s budget and the other one with the school’s performance. You can find some relative deals, and also again see the constraints on families who are not high income.

The first map shows elementary school performance for a given price range, summarized in five tiers based on each school’s test scores and growth in test scores. The school tiers we use are from the Office of the State Superintendent; you can read more about the performance tiers here.

If you filter the map to show places where median home prices are below $500,000, you’ll see that only elementary school zones on the eastern edge of the city fit this criterion. These schools mostly fall into the three lowest performance tiers of five, though a handful schools (Leckie, Nalle, Burroughs, Barnard, Truesdell) fall into tier two, the second highest performance tier.

The second map shows the range of median home prices in each school performance tier. For example, if you filter the map to see tier-2 schools, you’ll see that median home prices range greatly, from $150,500 in Leckie to $1.4 million in School Without Walls at Francis-Stevens. The map also shows that for a tier-1 school you’re looking at a minimum median home sale price of more than $750,000.

(view interactive here)map by tier

(view interactive here)map by price

How do families who can’t afford top home prices navigate the educational landscape in D.C.? Around 44 percent of the District’s public school students attend a public charter school. Students earn the right to attend a charter school through a lottery; where they live is not a factor. Out of the public school students who attend a DCPS school, 40 percent attended a school outside of their zone in 2012. Some of these students entered out-of-boundary schools through a lottery, while others had the right to attend more than one school. Once the new school boundary system is completely phased in, DCPS students will have the right to attend only their in-bounds school.

Also, plenty of students live in homes with fewer than three bedrooms (our unit of analysis) and have parents who rent instead of own their homes. This could help defray the costs of living in the boundaries of top-performing schools.

What exactly is this data?

Median sale prices are for 3-bedroom homes sold in D.C. in the past year (July 2014 – June 2015). Home sales data is from MRIS and was provided by realtor Kevin Wood via

We used the new DCPS elementary school boundaries that will be phased in starting in the 2015-2016 school year. Children who are assigned to new schools under the new boundaries will be able to stay in their current schools. The boundaries are from the D.C. Office of the Chief Technology Officer.

School tiers are how the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) ranks schools by performance for federal reporting and accountability purposes. You can read more about the performance tiers here. In our post we numbered the tiers, but OSSE instead uses the terms “Reward, Rising, Developing, Focus, and Priority”. We used the tiers OSSE assigned schools in 2014. Reading scores are from the 2014 D.C. CAS.

The portion of public school students attending charter schools is from 2014. This data is from OSSE. The percent of DCPS students attending out-of-boundary schools is from data from the Deputy Mayor for Education, which you can access here and read about here.

Correction: In a previous version of this post we said that 71 percent of DCPS students attended a school outside of their assigned zone in 2012. In fact, 40 percent of DCPS students attended out-of-boundary schools in 2012. The initial version of this post also said all of these students entered these schools via lottery, but under the old boundary system some of these students had the right to attend these schools.  

Kevin Lang contributed to this post

25 thoughts on “The cost of a guaranteed spot in a DCPS elementary school

  1. Why don’t you include all schools? Our school, for example, Brookland at Bunker Hill (soon to be known as just Bunker Hill) is missing, at least from the dots.


  2. We couldn’t fit all the names on the scatter plot. If you click on the interactive version of the graph, and move your mouse over the dots, you’ll see that Brookland is the dot at the intersection of $399k and 38% prof/adv.


  3. These are interesting and important analysis of data from DC. Good work.

    Just want to make sure you understand that students have geographic rights to schools AND feeder rights to schools, so in the old and the new system, students who are geographically out of boundary for middle or high schools, in particular, will have the right to attend them if they entered the lottery as out of boundary for the feeder elementary school. It makes the analysis of in and out of boundary different than attending a school by-right and not by-right.

    “Correction: In a previous version of this post we said that 71 percent of DCPS students attended a school outside of their assigned zone in 2012. In fact, 40 percent of DCPS students attended out-of-boundary schools in 2012. The initial version of this post also said all of these students entered these schools via lottery, but under the old boundary system some of these students had the right to attend these schools.”


  4. This is a really comprehensive overview of DCPS-related metrics. Since there are so many potential lines of follow-up inquiry in here, it would be great to see more District Measured posts that build on this analysis, maybe even as part of a dedicated series. Newspapers have columnists who write on specific topics and reporters who work specific beats – would be really compelling if District Measured similarly had analysts dedicated to covering specific issues. Ginger seems to have a real knack for it (she’s authored 4 of the 5 posts tagged “DCPS”), so she gets my vote.

    Follow-up topics aside for the moment, there seem to be some duplicate slides in the deck (5 seems to be a copy of 4, and 13 seems to be a copy of 12). Not sure if the dupes are just extras or if they are stealing space from other slides that were intended to be in those spots. If there are extra slides, it would be interesting to see them added into that deck.

    As for future analysis, here are some potential issues worth exploring, all of which are geared toward helping DC residents develop a deeper understanding of the extent to which DC’s long-term growth prospects are tied to the ability of its school system (both public and charter) to attract and retain households that will want to remain here long term, in all parts of the city and across broad demographic lines.

    Slide 1: This slide examines correlation between 3BR home prices and performance of the DC elementary schools in bounds to those homes. Tons of follow-up analysis to be done here. For example, right on slide 1 it would be interesting to add a marker on the slider bar for the “median household income” in DC (you could also add a reference line for this on Slide 3). The goal there would be to show how 3BR home prices compare to the incomes of most DC households, which gets to the basic question of “What are the best-performing schools that the majority of DC residents can afford to live near?” On a related note, it would be interesting to see a new slide that depicts “median household income” for each school’s feeder boundaries. And it would be extremely helpful to get data for homes other than 3BR’s – there are probably broad swathes of homes that get excluded from this analysis because they may not meet that relatively narrow standard.

    Slide 4: Some schools lose a lot of enrollment between 1st and 5th grades. Would be really interesting to examine why. There are likely multiple reasons, not all of which will be applicable across the boards to all schools.

    Slide 7: Waitlists for some schools are much greater than they are for others, although school performance (as measured by test scores) are not proportionately higher in all cases. What accounts for that ostensible discrepancy? Again, this gets to understanding why some schools have such a huge draw, by way of understanding what it takes to attract and retain families in the District long-term. If huge waitlists are not based exclusively (or even predominantly) on academic prowess, then what is the basis for that draw, and is there something in there that can inform how we extend it across DC more broadly? On a related note, it would be interesting to see a new slide that attempts to quantify community engagement per school – i.e., is there any data available regarding parent and/or community auxiliary support of a given school?

    Those are just a few ideas, but there are definitely several more that could key off this blog post and the visualizations in it. Keep up the good work guys!


  5. I like the data and analysis here, but something is missing or misleading or doesn’t add up for me.

    My child attends Thomson Elementary. It is listed here as a Tier 1 school even though the most recently published scores on the DCPS school profiles show only 60% of kids are testing proficient (58%) or advanced (2%).

    More importantly, the median 3 bedroom home in the boundaries may well cost over $1 Million, but I don’t think that is anywhere near the median cost of housing for families with children attending the school, including in-boundary families in the school which represent that majorit,. because according to the DCPS profile on Thomson, 99% percent of the children attending qualify for free or reduced-price lunch based on their family income. They also qualify for free after school care. Given the enrollment is just under 300, that means all but 3 kids in the school live in families who don’t earn enough afford the median 3 bedroom (or likely even 1 or 2 bedroom). So correlating the cost of a 3 bedroom home in the area with the ability of less affluent families to live in the boundaries and attend the school seems very misleading.

    In this case Thomson’s boundaries represent a very expensive area, but also has a significant population of families who can’t afford the median 3 bedroom home price, have incomes low enough to qualify for free or reduced price lunch, but are still able to live in the boundaries and largely fill the school with children. I say something in the analysis is misleading or missing because if I didn’t know this about Thomson, the data in the analysis would lead me to believe that only affluent families could afford to get their kids a guaranteed spot to attend Thomson, which is clearly not the case.

    When looking at the affordability of the neighborhood or median home price, is the relative # of subsidized units and cost of subsidized units taken into account? It would appear that (or something else I’m missing) may significantly alter the cost to families of a guaranteed spot in a DCPS school.


    1. Right, in a lot of areas with high home prices there are low-rent apartments that my analysis doesn’t capture. Renting an apartment or buying a smaller home is one way families can afford to live in school zones where prices for three bedroom homes are high.

      The OSSE classification tiers take into account test score growth in addition to raw test scores. More info here:


      1. Note that Thomson’s Free and Reduced Price Lunch numbers are not actually 99%, btw. Here’s why:

        In 2011–12, the Office of Civil Rights put it at 76%:

        Meanwhile, GreatSchools puts them at ~44%.


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