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Lessons about Japan’s school catchment areas

by and

A neighbor recently asked us to sign a petition requesting that the local education committee keep a certain elementary school open. Due to falling enrollment, students who attended the school would be transferred to a different one in the near future.

Since the new school was about the same distance from her home as the old one, we wondered why she was so adamant about keeping the old one running, and she told us she herself had attended that school. She felt betrayed, since after she and her husband started a family, she talked him into moving to our neighborhood just so that her kids could attend the same school she did.

It’s not unusual for people to move to specific areas because they want their children to attend specific public schools. In fact, it’s often the case that the perceived quality of nearby public schools has a direct effect on real estate values.

Children from well-to-do families do better academically and are more likely to attend university than children from lower income families. The reasons are various but mostly come down to easier access to the kind of resources that provide better educational opportunities, and while public school is supposed to offer the same level of opportunity to all children, unfortunately it doesn’t always do that.

While affluent parents can and do send their children to expensive private schools that give them an advantage in terms of matriculating to supposedly better schools and universities, many in fact don’t send their kids to private elementary schools.

According to a 2014 education ministry survey, the average total tuition of a public-school education in Japan from kindergarten to university is ¥12.13 million, while the same for a private-school education is ¥27.49 million, or more than twice as much. If a parent is so wealthy that this difference is unimportant, they may just as well stick with a reputable private school, but people who aren’t so wealthy but want what they feel is the best education for their children — and who don’t want to start competing early with other rich parents for slots in private schools — will first send their children to public elementary school, and then later send them to university-track private middle schools and high schools.

But they don’t countenance just any public school, despite assertions that all are the same. What these parents do is search out school districts in which residents have higher incomes, the idea being that children from affluent households make better students who, in turn, make for better schools — and in fact, this appears to be the case. According to research carried out by economics blogger Toshihiko Maita and cited by the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the Tokyo wards that have the lowest per capita income levels also show the lowest scholastic achievement rates.

The Dec. 21, 2016, issue of Aera magazine profiled a “real estate consulting company” called Style Act, one of whose selling points is helping people move to districts with reputable public schools. Legally, Style Act cannot advertise anything about schools except how far away they are from a given property, but they do run a separate website called Sumai Surfing, which ranks public-school districts in Tokyo according to criteria such as yearly income of residents, census data and relative real estate values. A representative of the company told Aera that potential customers come to them with specific public elementary schools in mind, asking if there are any properties for sale within the relevant school districts.

As a result, the properties in these districts easily retain their value and, in many cases, even increase in value depending on the circumstances. Tokyo used to have a fairly open “school choice” system. Tokyo dwellers could send their children to public schools outside their districts as long as they were within the city (many other cities have a similar system). Nowadays, however, it’s more difficult owing to the popularity of certain schools. Children within a given school district are prioritized for enrollment, and if there are no more slots available, children from other districts are not accepted.

The Aera article lists these popular schools in Tokyo, and, needless to say, they are situated in areas with the highest real estate values in the city. Perhaps the most popular public elementary school in Tokyo is Minato Ward’s Nanzan Elementary School. The average household income in the school district is ¥14 million. The average household income in Japan in 2015, according to the National Tax Agency, was ¥4.85 million. Style Act says that it is schools such as Nanzan that influence property values, though a case could be made that it is the rich people who live in the surrounding district who keep the schools’ educational quality high.

The man who founded Style Act, Yujin Oki, published a kind of guide for people who wanted the best schools for their kids. He writes that when he married, he bought a condominium in Koto Ward, Tokyo, but after his wife had twins he learned that the local public elementary school had a reputation for “unruly and disruptive students,” and noticed that within the district was a large public and semi-public housing complex “that contained many foreigners.” So he sold his condo and moved to Bunkyo Ward, which is where the main campus of The University of Tokyo is located.

This experience made Oki think that other parents would appreciate knowing where good public schools were located. Later, he studied the real estate market in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, the home of the government planned science park known as Tsukuba Science City. Oki noticed that the school districts surrounding Science City had much higher scholastic achievement scores than other districts in the city, and so used this knowledge in his real estate business.

Oki’s concerns are class-driven. The end result of people searching out higher income school districts for the sake of their children’s education is to discourage diversity. The Aera article says that parents with more modest means often rent apartments in upscale districts so that their kids can go to better schools and thus have a shot at better lives. The thing is, as these districts become more well-known, their property values keep increasing, making it more difficult for anyone whose income is below a certain level to live there.

Real estate agents aren’t the only people who use this information to their economic advantage. Residential property developers also construct tower condos within preferred school districts and sell the units at a premium. Developers aren’t allowed to advertise this aspect of their projects, but parents who are looking for such features know where to go. And then when their kids graduate, they can easily sell the apartment if they want to. Maybe they can even make a profit. It’s a win-win situation, but you have to be a winner in the first place.

Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku blog about Japanese housing at www.catforehead.wordpress.com.