Want to know which middle and high schools your kids would go to if you move to that $174,900 two-bedroom brick rowhouse in Baltimore’s Belair-Edison neighborhood? Or the cozy, fixer upper on the corner lot on McClean Boulevard? Or maybe you would rather skip the rehab and go for the $600,000 four-bedroom colonial with hardwood floors in Homeland?
Funny thing is that the Zillow listings for all three homes, located miles apart, seem to indicate they’re zoned for exactly the same middle and high schools: Booker T. Washington Middle School in West Baltimore and Benjamin Franklin High School in Cherry Hill.
Really? No, it’s false advertising.
Newcomers and new parents might not know that the city doesn’t have neighborhood attendance zones for middle and high schools, unlike most other public school systems in the country. Instead, students pick which school they would like to go to from any middle or high in the city. They usually get one of their top three choices.
But Zillow doesn’t say that. Instead, it instantly populates almost any house for sale in the city with the same two schools, which just happen to be the first in an alphabetical listing of the city’s middle and high schools. The only exceptions are homes zoned for an elementary/middle school, but those listings still show Benjamin Franklin High.
GreatSchools, whose school rankings appear on Zillow and many of the other major real estate websites, gives both of the schools a 1 out of 10, the lowest rating a school can get. So a casual buyer might think: “Whoa. Forget that house.”
That is what concerns staff at Live Baltimore, a nonprofit that works to increase population and homeownership. It created an explainer video for real estate agents on the issue.
“I don’t see any way that could be obvious to the average buyer. The average buyer doesn’t know we use middle school and high school choice,” said Annie Milli, executive director of Live Baltimore.
She said what’s more concerning is that those who are most unaware “are people moving into Baltimore City from just about any other county in the United States.”
Several years ago, Live Baltimore looked at the correlation between GreatSchools ratings and the speed with which a house sold. It found that homes for sale in school zones with higher GreatSchools ratings tend to sell quicker than homes in zones with lower school ratings. Milli acknowledged, though, that school ratings alone may not determine a home’s sale speed.
But she said the deflating value of homes in majority Black neighborhoods has wide-reaching impact because the value of a home is critical to the amount of wealth that family is able to accumulate over time.
“And if the scores are further devaluing those neighborhoods, I think they are worth an examination,” she said.
The day after The Baltimore Banner inquired about the misleading school information, a spokesman for Zillow, Will Lemke, acknowledged there’s an issue with the way GreatSchools data is attached to home listings in the city. “We are looking into that,” Lemke said.
But Zillow also released a statement to The Banner saying that buyers should only use the GreatSchools ratings as a starting point to help them gather information. “We recommend parents visit schools in person before deciding and to also consider factors like faculty, extracurricular activities, school culture, teaching style, class size and the engagement of the parent community to ensure they find the school that is the best fit for their child,” Zillow’s statement said.
“I think it is a lot to expect consumers to dig into the text,” said Milli, referring to the disclaimers on the Zillow website.
Real estate website Redfin does tell readers that “Baltmore’s enrollment policy is not based solely on geography,” but then it pulls in GreatSchools listings of half a dozen seemingly random schools.
Realtor.com also uses GreatSchools, lists schools that are geographically close to the house for sale and shows a map of the school boundaries. The map shows middle and high schools with the entire city as a boundary.
Over the seven years that she has worked as a real estate agent in Baltimore, Alonna Davis has seen countless clients rule out Baltimore based on concerns about poor education options.
“They’re not even trying to entertain Baltimore, because they have school-age children,” said Davis, an agent and co-owner of Realty One Group Universal and a volunteer with Live Baltimore. “It ends up just being like, if it’s not in the county don’t even send it to me.”
She’ll often tell clients that the ratings they see on real estate sites aren’t accurate and that the city’s school choice system gives them more options than the sites would suggest. Even if the ratings were removed or corrected, she worries that concerns about Baltimore’s schools are too deeply seated for many prospective homebuyers to change their minds.
“Just the whole stigma around Baltimore City and the school system — no one wants to take the time to do the research and figure out what the real ratings are,” Davis said.
Because of fair housing laws, Davis and other realtors are not allowed to share opinions about specific schools with clients. All she can do is direct them to better information online and let them know that she’s going through the school search process herself for her daughter who is starting pre-K in the fall. While she wishes the options in her Northwest Baltimore neighborhood of Ashburton were stronger, she’s glad that the city’s choice system allows her to choose a school just a 10- or 15-minute drive away in Medfield or Roland Park.
Over the years, researchers have questioned the veracity of GreatSchools ratings, and some believe they are detrimental to schools and neighborhoods. One study published in 2018 and revised in 2019 found that the GreatSchools ratings “accelerated divergence in housing values, income distributions and education levels as well as the racial and ethnic composition across communities.” The result, the study said, is that there is more segregation and less equity in education.
For Caitlin Regan, a realtor with Key Group of Cummings & Co. Realtors, the GreatSchools rating for her local elementary and middle school in Locust Point, Francis Scott Key, has always been puzzling. From her experience there as a volunteer, working at the library and as a coach with a girls’ running group, and from conversations with friends whose children have attended, the school’s rating of four out of 10 appears confusingly low.
“If people actually look to see what’s going on in these schools, they may be a little bit happier than what numbers say,” Regan said. It’s more of a concern for clients moving from out of town, who may be comparing the ratings in Baltimore to those in other parts of the country.
“You’ve got to look past a number — because these schools aren’t just a number,” Regan said.
Maryland’s education department uses its own star rating system, with data released annually. That rating takes into account a wider number of factors, including a survey of students and teachers, but fewer parents turn to it than to the more easily accessible GreatSchools ratings, which are primarily based on test scores.
When The Banner asked GreatSchools CEO Jon Deane about the problem with listing the same middle and high school for many houses in Baltimore, he said questions should be directed to the real estate sites and suggested that parents go to the GreatSchools website.
Deane said the choice program in Baltimore offers parents a lot of opportunities to find different schools that are the right fit for their children. “We hope they will use GreatSchools as a resource,” he said, but they should understand “there are different sources of information they should seek as they are making their decisions.”