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SchoolMatch Helps Parents Choose Where To Live

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When the Warner-Lambert Company recently had to transfer about two dozen workers from a North Carolina facility to its New Jersey headquarters, the consumer-products and pharmaceutical concern offered the transferees an unusual benefit: specialized advice about schools in the new area.

The company sought the help of SchoolMatch, an Ohio-based service that uses a data base of information on the nation's school districts to help parents choose a community with the schools that are best suited to their children.

"Here in New Jersey, there are so many different townships and boroughs,'' says Robert Todd, the vice president of colleague relations for Warner-Lambert, which makes a wide variety of products, including Listerine mouthwash, Rolaids antacid, and Junior Mints candy. "The array of school districts to consider up here is rather daunting.''

The information was helpful to Tom McMurray, a packaging engineer for a Warner-Lambert subsidiary, in planning his move from the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area to Morris Plains, N.J.

Mr. McMurray and his wife teach their children at home, but they still wanted to settle down in a school district that could offer special help for their son's attention-deficit disorder.

"We didn't want to be in a school district that didn't have a program in case we decided to go back to the public schools,'' says Mr. McMurray, who ended up purchasing a home in Washington Township of Warren County, N.J.

Better-Educated Consumers

Parents moving to a new community have always asked, "How are the schools?'' To answer that question, they generally have relied on word-of-mouth advice from friends, co-workers, and real-estate agents.

SchoolMatch, a service of Public Priority Systems Inc. of Westerville, Ohio, was established to eliminate some of the guesswork for parents choosing a place to live, and, thus, a public school.

"I've never met a realtor with [home] listings that don't have 'schools that are some of the best in the area,''' says William L. Bainbridge, the president of the firm.

The SchoolMatch service tries to provide its clients with a more objective means of evaluating school systems, examining such factors as enrollment, class size, college-entrance-test performance, and per-pupil spending.

"Parents are becoming better-educated consumers'' of elementary and secondary schools, says Mr. Bainbridge, a former school superintendent in Hampton, Va.,and Newark, Ohio. "But I think we have a long way to go. They became educated consumers of colleges 20 years ago.''

Public Priority Systems was established in 1984, with the SchoolMatch service first offered to businesses two years later. Since then, Mr. Bainbridge and his partners have built an apparently successful business by developing a data base of information on school districts, then thinking of new ways to market it. (The privately held firm does not release its financial statements.)

The firm has a knack for publicity that results in frequent mentions in such business publications as The Wall Street Journal and Business Week magazine. For example, a joint study by SchoolMatch and Runzheimer International, a consulting firm specializing in determining living and travel costs, recently compared several school districts based on college-entrance-examination scores and cost of living. The results of the study, which showed that even low-cost areas can have good schools, rated mentions in The Wall Street Journal and American Demographics magazine.

The service does much of its business through contracts with corporations and consulting firms that aid in employee relocations.

"More and more companies are recognizing this to be valuable information to the employee,'' says Thomas Peiffer, the executive vice president of Runzheimer, which recently formed a partnership with SchoolMatch. "This is a minimal expense item, yet it can speed up the relocation process.''

SchoolMatch also provides a counseling service for parents of children with special needs or abilities, and it maintains a separate data base on private schools for parents looking in that sector.

The firm also has a budding sideline in providing testimony about school quality in child-custody cases. Mr. Bainbridge has testified in such cases in 23 states.

"Obviously, [school quality] is only a factor if all other things are equal,'' he says of the service's role in custody cases, which has attracted criticism from some family lawyers. But "since children spend more waking hours in school than with their parents, then it becomes a pretty important factor.''

'Better Than Nothing'

Even the core SchoolMatch service raises caution flags among some educators.

"It's important for parents to make the decisions,'' says Lynne Glassman, the director of network operations for the National School Boards Association.

"An outside group might be helpful, but I would be skeptical about taking someone else's advice'' about the best school for her children, she added.

James W. Guthrie, a professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley, thinks that rankings are generally helpful.

"Educators will resist using test scores to compare schools, but they are better than nothing,'' he says.

"The difficulty is when the data are aggregated into a district average,'' he added. "You need it school by school. Even in District X, the worst in the nation, there are likely to be good schools.''

SchoolMatch seems to appeal to Americans' fondness for ranking things from best to worst.

"When [former U.S. Secretary of Education William J.] Bennett blasts Chicago's schools as worst in the nation, people wonder, 'Who is the best?''' Mr. Bainbridge says.

SchoolMatch does not publish nationwide rankings of public schools or districts, although some other organizations have taken a stab at that. (See Column One.)

Instead, the service focuses on making a "match'' between what parents desire in a school and what school districts have to offer.

The match is based on the categories of information in SchoolMatch's data base. Parents fill out a questionnaire asking their preferences on school size, class size, test scores, per-pupil spending, home property values in the community, income level per resident, and other factors.

For example, parents check whether they prefer a school with "very high'' or just "average'' scores on such college-entrance exams as the Scholastic Assessment Test or the American College Test. A "family profile'' guide accompanying the questionnaire provides average figures for each category.

The SchoolMatch data base contains only variables that come from "auditable'' sources, Mr. Bainbridge says. It might be helpful to know how many computers school has or the percentage of graduates who go on to college, but reliable data on such factors are not available from a government or accrediting organization source, he says.

Mr. Bainbridge is particularly skeptical of the information that high schools provide about the college matriculation of their graduates. While many schools survey their graduates about what they plan to do after graduation, few follow up to check on how many actually enrolled in college, he asserts.

"The schools publish this data, but, frankly, we think a lot of guidance counselors make it up,'' he says.

But SchoolMatch's data can be limiting, too, since its comparisons are based only on school districts, not individual schools. Mr. Bainbridge admits that SchoolMatch is less useful in big cities and in states with large county school districts, like Maryland and Virginia. Next year, he says, the service will begin breaking down information into high school attendance zones.

Thus, the SchoolMatch rankings may well be more useful to an employee transferred to an area with many small school districts.

Moving to Illinois

To gain a user's perspective on the service, Education Week filled out a parent questionnaire for a hypothetical family with middle- and high-school-aged children. Under the scenario, the family was planning a move from Montgomery County, Md., a Washington suburb whose large school system enjoys a good academic reputation, to Oak Brook, Ill., a western suburb of Chicago that is home to upscale shopping centers and corporate headquarters, including that of the McDonald's Corporation.

The Chicago area has scores of small school districts, with separate elementary and high school systems that often bear no logical relationship to municipal boundaries.

We told SchoolMatch that we were looking for the high end of the spectrum in most categories, such as test scores and spending, although we did not check "very high,'' the top choice. We also requested upper-middle-income communities with fairly well-educated residents, and average class sizes in average to large school buildings.

The SchoolMatch computer spit out the 15 districts that most closely matched our preferences, out of a possible 46 districts within the 12-mile commuting radius we specified. The normal cost for such a search is about $100.

At the top of the list was Community High School District 99 in Downers Grove, which directly matched 11 out of 15 variables. For example, the district was listed as being in the 81st national percentile on scholarship exams, an apparent match to our request for high performance. District officials say they are not familiar with SchoolMatch and cannot comment on the search.

The Hinsdale Township High School District 86 in Hinsdale, the second high school district on the print-out, ranked in the 96th percentile on scholarship exams. But the SchoolMatch computer did not consider that a match for the category because the ranking exceeded our request. The Hinsdale district matched in nine categories, including school-building enrollment, teacher salaries, home property values, and education level of residents.

One district in SchoolMatch's report came with a page of "supplementary'' information--a brief sales pitch for Westmont Community Unit Schools District 201. The page, paid for and provided by the district, describes its schools as "the public schools with a private school touch.'' It also boasts that the district's lone high school had one of the lowest dropout rates in the state.

Superintendent Donald Wold says the Westmont district paid for the blurb at the urging of one of its board members, who had used SchoolMatch before.

"I couldn't tell you whether any people have showed up at our school doors and said, 'We found you through SchoolMatch,''' Mr. Wold says. A school system "report card'' mandated by Illinois law is probably more useful to prospective home buyers, he adds.

But he believes the SchoolMatch list would be useful for any transferee "hitting the area cold.''

"If I were moving to Los Angeles or Denver, I would want something that could help me out as a starting point,'' he says.

School Visits Important

Mr. Bainbridge stresses that the result of any SchoolMatch search should serve as merely the starting point for choosing a school. He urges parents to visit schools and meet with the principal.

"We recommend they visit at least three of the schools on the list,'' he says. "They should not buy a home without making a school visit first. We think the process needs to be much more like the college-selection process. Parents look at a home and a neighborhood, but they don't take the time to find out about the most important governmental unit in the community--the school district.''

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