When Pete Clive talks to parents about where they want to live in Halifax, finding a home near good public schools is often one of the top criteria.

“It’s a big part of what we do, and it wasn’t until I became a parent five years ago that I understood the significance of that,” says Clive, who owns Six Eight Realty.

“Before, when I didn’t have a child, my clients would ask me that and I’d just oblige. And I’d be like, why does that make any difference? But once you have a kid, you understand the significance of the school that your child’s going to end up going to, and you start making decisions around that. I see it all the time.”

Ever wonder why some elementaries and junior highs, often in more affluent neighbourhoods, are cited regularly in real estate listings for homes in the area while schools in other districts are never mentioned?

“Not all schools are created equally,” Clive says. “My daughter starts Primary in the fall and we’re moving to a (different) school district for (that) very reason. We want to be in the right neighbourhood at the right school.”

Despite the move, the super-tall Realtor doesn’t sound completely convinced that any school is better than another.

“Everyone wants to be in the right school district, but not everyone can be. Or what is perceived to be the right school district,” Clive says.

“But what I have also come to understand is that no one dismisses the quality of the school once their kid is in it. So no one says, ‘My daughter goes to a crappy school.’ It doesn’t matter what school it is, people always find a reason to talk favourably about the school that their child goes to. So I think it’s more of a perception thing.”

Distinguishing perception from reality is always a tricky thing. Indeed, a study that looked at Vancouver, where students from the city’s Eastside flock to schools in the more affluent Westside, determined that students from the poorer part of the city outperformed their peers in a first-year physics course at the University of British Columbia.

Back in this corner of the continent, Paul Graham and his family recently moved from the north end of peninsular Halifax to the Wedgewood subdivision just off the peninsula because he believes the elementary school there will be a better fit for his five-year-old son Phinneaus, who is also just starting Primary.

The elementary in the north-end neighbourhood was “badly kept,” says Graham, a 44-year-old manager with a local security firm. And there were other concerns.

“I never saw anybody playing on the soccer field.”

Neighbours, who expressed concerns about bullying, sent their kids to private school instead. But that left the parents trapped, for financial reasons, in homes similar to the one Graham and his wife Tiffany already felt was too small.

After looking at a place in suburban Beechville, they settled on a home in Wedgewood near Grosvenor Wentworth Park School. The two houses had identical square footage, but the Wedgewood one cost a lot more.

“That extra hundred thousand got us no more house, but it obviously got us in a better area,” Graham says.

He’s still scratching his prematurely grey crewcut over why they couldn’t send their son to any elementary school.

“I don’t want to say it’s undemocratic. I’m sure there are some people in the north end who don’t want their kids to go to south-end schools and vice versa. It just seemed a little odd that you couldn’t necessarily have a choice, at least within a 10-kilometre radius.”

That open boundaries concept has been adopted successfully in other Canadian cities, including Edmonton and Vancouver, says Charles Cirtwill, who heads the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

“Believe it or not, Edmonton, once upon a time, wasn’t a thriving city,” Cirtwill says. “It had education challenges. It was having parents who were dissatisfied with the school system; students who were graduating without being able to read. It had buildings that were half-empty. Does any of this sound familiar?”

The open boundaries model still gives students the “100 per cent guaranteed right” to attend their neighbourhood school, he says.

But if they want to go to a different school, they have a shot at it.

“The best open boundary models have it allocated on either a first-come, first-served basis, or better still, a lottery exercise,” Cirtwill says.

Halifax, on paper anyway, does have a similar system, he says.

“A lot of parents don’t understand that we have, theoretically, open boundaries in Halifax regional school board. You can make an out-of-boundary application. So, for example, my six-year-old is now going into Grade 2. When she was in Primary, I made an out-of-boundary application to move her from Inglis Street School to St. Mary’s School in the south end. That was three years ago, and I’m still waiting for a reply.”

The process, known as an out-of-area application, means parents don’t have to lie about their address or send their kids to live with grandma to get them into a different school, he says.

“The problem is, it’s entirely up to the discretion of the principal whether or not you go. There’s no real formal rules for the process. There’s no criteria. There’s no lottery system.”

Cirtwill says that process sets up a significant power imbalance between parents and school administrators, and many moms and dads choose not to rock the boat if their child is denied a spot.

Cirtwill, a father of four aged six to 25, eventually sent his youngest to Armbrae Academy, a private school in south-end Halifax. An open boundary public school system would lead to less division along socio-economic lines than Halifax already has, he says.

“Right now, we basically build walls around particular types of communities and you have no choice.”

That process, he argues, creates schools where the majority of students “come from broken families; come from challenged economic circumstances” or come from communities where English is not the first language.

“So in fact the fixed boundaries that we have now create more of those kind of challenges than the open boundary system does.”

The goal is not to make every public school the same, Cirtwill says. The ideal would be to provide different streams, such as performing arts, sports or hard science programs, at different schools, allowing students to choose according to their interests.

“We don’t want every school to look the same because not every kid is the same. Every kid learns differently. You want them to be able to have their choice. And that means we have to have a far more flexible system so it’s not just the rich who can find a school that speaks to their kid. It’s everybody.”

Edmonton has put its “most attractive magnet programs in their worst neighbourhoods,” Cirtwill says.

Placing a performing arts school in the inner city draws in suburban students and exposes both populations to each other, he says.

“If you look at the participation rate of kids in our black community and in our First Nations community, those are the ones that we’re losing in droves — particularly the young males. And those are the kids that we absolutely have to keep in school and find a way to give them something that they enjoy.”

At Ecole LeMarchant-St. Thomas in Halifax — a largely French immersion school in the middle of peninsular Halifax that Cirtwill dubs Nirvana — principal Pauline Murray says she tries to accommodate out-of-area students.

But she has to guard against accepting too many in case families that have just moved into the neighbourhood show up in the fall and push student numbers higher than her staff can handle.

About 380 students will attend LeMarchant this year. Ten per cent will likely come from outside the school’s catchment area, says Murray who announced this month she is moving to another school.

She suspects some parents with the financial wherewithal rent apartments in the area and sublet them to university students but use the address to register their children at her school. Another plan involves using a grandparent’s address for the same purpose.

“I certainly don’t care to follow kids home to make sure you actually live where you say you live,” Murray says.

The problem is, those applicants sometimes stymie parents who try to get their children into the school as official out-of-area students.

“That’s the real frustration I see with the policy,” she says.

If an open boundary concept were adopted, Murray suspects she’d see the number of children from outside the area jump to about 20 per cent of her school’s population. “If you have people who are coming from a long way away and you have a lot of them and they’re not in the community, I wonder how that affects the population overall.”“It does make for a very diverse community, which can be good for the kids. But it makes it challenging for parents to be as involved.”

Michael Corbett, an educational sociologist who teaches at Acadia University, opposes open boundaries.

“What tends to happen when you get into a more choice-oriented, market-ized school environment is the local schools lose their local flavour,” he says.

Corbett says open boundaries would create a hierarchy where some students “would be able to choose their way into the better schools and those who don’t, well, it’s kind of tough shit.”

Choice models tend to deepen already existing social inequalities, Corbett says.

“Not everyone is equally positioned to choose. Not all families are equally able to transport their kids across town to a better school.”

In north-end Halifax, for example, Corbett says there are likely lots of “upwardly mobile” people who would like to put their children in a south-end school.

“They don’t want that level of diversity in their kid’s experience,” he says. “So if you opened up the boundaries, I would predict that lots of those people would leave the north-end schools and they would move into south-end schools.”

That type of social polarization is unhealthy, Corbett says.

“When we develop schools that exacerbate existing social divisions, then I think what we’ve done is retreated from the grand dream of the public school, which was to create a space where all children come together and where we can live together and learn to talk together and learn to deliberate democratically as a society.”

Irvine Carvery, chairman of the Halifax regional school board, points to the example of St. Pat’s-Alexandra School, which closed in 2011.

“There were a lot of misconceptions about the school because of the area it was in,” near the public housing project known as Uniacke Square, Carvery says.

“We were left with less than 100 kids in a school that holds 400.”

He fears opening boundaries could hollow out other inner-city schools in similar fashion.

“Resources allocated to a school are based on the student population,” Carvery says.

African-Nova Scotian and First Nations children are often at a disadvantage compared with those from middle- and upper-class families, he says. That means those kids often need extra help, with reading, for example, by Grade 3. And they’d still need that assistance if other families voted with their feet and left for other schools.

Carvery argues that’s one factor that would force the cost of education to rise under an open boundary system.

“It’s a great idea in theory,” he says. “As a parent paying my tax dollars, I should be able to choose the school I want my child to go to.

“But the thing that we have to be cognizant of, and be very, very cautious of, is in establishing that policy, will it inadvertently create black schools and white schools? Poor schools and rich schools? We have to always keep that in mind when you’re making decisions like this because it could quite easily get to be that. Quite easily.”