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Parents Crave a 'Zagats' for Picking Schools

Guidebooks and consumer groups are springing up to help parents do comparative shopping for local schools

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When his family expanded beyond the capacity of their two-bedroom home, William Rice went shopping for a school.

"We were literally going to go find a school first and then ... find a house," says the father of three young children. But there was no readily available information to assess the quality of local schools.

In exasperation, Mr. Rice began collecting data on the 29 public school districts in the St. Louis area. He found the right place to move his growing family. But he didn't stop there. Last fall, he published his research results in "School Scorecard." The 17-page magazine sells for $8.95 and has become something of a local bestseller.

"I can't believe how hot this thing is," says one St. Louis bookstore clerk between calls to other stores to find a copy. "It's just flown off the shelves."

As consumer-oriented parents like Rice start shopping for schools the same way they pick minivans, the American passion for rankings is spreading to local public schools. It's no longer enough to simply rely on test scores. They want comparisons, and they want details. How many books are in the library? What kind of computers line the classroom walls?

In many places, the trend is being fueled by the spread of school-choice plans. Parents no longer are restricted to the closest school, but can transfer their children between schools and in some cases, between school districts.

"There is a much more discriminating shopper for schools today," says Steve Rees, president of Publishing 20/20 in San Francisco. Mr. Rees is producing a series of guidebooks on schools in California where a 1994 law allows parents to send students to any school in the state. The first books, on San Francisco schools, came out in 1995. This fall, Rees plans to publish books on four more California counties. "We are hoping to become to schools what Zagat's is to restaurants," he says.

There is no national directory or source for these new guidebooks. Many are simply the fruits of a determined parent's labor. When Nancy Walser, a journalist in Cambridge, Mass., began thinking about sending her daughter to kindergarten, she viewed it as one more research project.


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