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(Darrow Montgomery)

It’s a pretty commonly accepted principle in the real estate business: You buy as much house as you can afford. And then, unless you’re wealthy enough to support tens of thousands of dollars a year on your child’s education before they even fill out a college application, you buy the best school district you can afford, too.

In no American region is that more true than the Washington suburbs, where parents go to great lengths to get their kids into the best public school districts. One realtor related a request from a pregnant client who wanted to find a house in a Montgomery County district with the high school she planned for the unborn child to attend 14 years later. In Loudoun County, one district’s sale prices are consistently inflated because the local high school has the best football team in the state, and parents will pay anything to have their promising boys eligible to play there.

That wasn’t always the case with the public schools in the District itself, which mobile, education-minded parents would move to Maryland or Virginia to avoid (or, if they stayed in D.C., pay their way out of).

“For the District of Columbia, it was less of an issue a few years ago, when the schools were just routinely just written off,” says Elizabeth Blakeslee, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker. “People either moved when their kids were five or six, or if they were lucky enough to send them to private schools, then that was fine.”

Then, says Blakeslee, came Mayor Anthony Williams, with his increased focus on schools. And then public schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, and her relentless drive for results.

Now, every realtor can tick off the names of the hot elementary schools: Mann, Murch, Janney, Key, Lafayette, Eaton, Oyster. Because of fair housing laws passed in response to redlining, realtors are strictly forbidden from offering their clients advice about which ones are best. But they don’t need to: Like any consumer good, parents can go comparison shopping for schools on rating sites, message boards, and real estate listing services, which are now matching up homes for sale with test scores and reviews of local schools. And they do. They talk to principals and PTA presidents and poll their friends.

“We have a highly educated buying population in D.C., and they value their schools greatly. They do their research, they study up, and they find the specific district that they want to be in,” says real estate agent Skip Singleton. “If they find a better house in another district, they’re not interested.”

On the flip side, of course, are the areas of the city where land is still cheap—Anacostia River Realty’s Darrin Davis says that the schools east of the river aren’t good enough for house hunters to make any distinctions, and there aren’t any families buying there anyway. But if the schools got better, all the single people moving in might just stay and buy bigger houses, which could be the economic engine Wards 7 and 8 need.

All of which—as DCPS contemplates revamping its assignment policies and geographic boundaries—makes Rhee one of the most powerful people in D.C. real estate. In Upper Northwest neighborhoods where schools have long had good reputations, enrollment is soaring this year, and real estate prices have stayed high as well. Elsewhere, homeowners who never used to dream of sending their kids to local schools are giving them a second chance. Meanwhile, parents who can’t afford to buy in the ritzier districts are wondering when—and whether—Rhee’s reforms will pay off for schools where gentrification only recently arrived.

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In a city where education never used to matter much to the real estate market—because so few public schools were considered good enough to be a draw—this all adds up to a big change. Enrollment for sought-after schools in Upper Northwest is off the charts for the school year that started Monday. Janney and Murch are taking in over more than 500 students, up from 444 and 480 respectively last year. Key Elementary is looking at 375 students, up 32; Mann expects 280, up from 269. And on down the list.

Though the education is free, most parents paid a premium for their kids to enjoy it.

With the exception of Barnard Elementary in Petworth, all 10 of the elementary schools that rate a perfect 10 at GreatSchools.org—a non-profit that ranks schools on the basis of test scores—are located in the five ZIP codes with the highest average tax assessments in the District. High-performing schools are a large reason why houses in those areas have still sold like hotcakes even during the recession, realtors say; while properties across the city can sit on the market for months before finding buyers, houses in American University Park and Chevy Chase get snapped up within days.

But the phenomenon isn’t totally limited to tony Ward 3 neighborhoods, where the schools have been considered acceptable (at least) for decades. Public schools in Dupont Circle, Mount Pleasant, and Capitol Hill are getting good buzz lately, and incoming parents are starting to look for homes in those districts too.

“We have had a renaissance,” boasts Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells in a video featured on his campaign website. “Just to see the excitement of the realtors who are so happy with me, because now people say, not just ‘are we in the boundaries for the cluster,’ but ‘are we in the boundary for Brent, are we in the boundary for Maury, are we in the boundary for Tyler…Really no other urban area in America has had so many traditional elementary schools come back online as schools of choice in such a concentrated area.”

And it even goes beyond elementary schools. Especially as the economy has made the District’s provision of $10,000 grants toward tuition at public universities a more attractive perk, realtors report that their clients no longer pick up stakes and head for the ’burbs as soon as their kids hit middle school—there’s greater willingness to give the full run of public education a chance. Realtors think the reforms are helping the market: Every one I talked to said Rhee’s approach was creating optimism about the future of the public schools. And even though the Washington D.C. Association of Realtors endorsed Vincent Gray for mayor, it’s not because of dissatisfaction with the progress of public education.

“We are thrilled by that,” says WDCAR lobbyist Ed Krauze. “We are probably one of the direct beneficiaries of those decisions.”

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That’s all very well and good for those who can buy their way into the best school districts. But there are a number of neighborhoods that are improving faster than their schools can support.

Take Bloomingdale and Brookland, for example, which are in the middle of a baby boom. Local realtor and incoming WDCAR president Suzanne Des Marais has seen more families moving into her home turf of Bloomingdale in the last couple of years than ever before—but it’s in spite of the schools, not because of them.

“I don’t know anybody who sends their kids to school in my neighborhood, which is a little crazy,” says Des Marais, whose 12-year-old goes to a private school in Takoma Park.

Ward 5 was particularly hard hit by the school closures of 2008, which left thousands of students without a neighborhood school, assigning them to classrooms further away. One parent calls “purple splotch areas,” after how they show up on DCPS’ district map.

“If I were house-hunting, I’d absolutely avoid these closed-school neighborhoods,” e-mails one parent, who lives in the district formerly served by Clark Elementary. “The sheer uncertainty would keep me away. And I worry about our ability to sell our home should we need to.”

In these areas, many parents are obsessively researching charter schools: Instead of Mann, Murch and Lafayette, the names on everyone’s lips are E.L. Haynes, Two Rivers, and Yu Ying. Charter schools enrolled 28,000 students last year—38 percent of D.C.’s total public school population. With no geographical requirements for admission, the growth of charter schools frees parents from the need to live in a certain neighborhood.

But it’s not a foolproof option. It’s harder to get into the most popular charter schools now than it was a few years ago. And at a certain point, they may have to face the lackluster public schools in their own neighborhoods.

Angela Robinson, an attorney who bought a house in Bloomingdale in 2004, moderates a Yahoo! group of about 140 parents of young children in the neighborhood. She says that most moved into the area planning to leave when they had kids, but have since made comfortable lives, and don’t want to retreat to the suburbs. Soon, she’s thinking, a critical mass of parents  might be willing to take a chance collectively, figuring that they could improve the schools by dint of pure involvement.

At that point, the effect of schools on real estate could reverse itself: The strong appeal of D.C.’s neighborhoods would create an imperative to invest in local public schools, whether Rhee’s reforms work or not.

“No one wants to go back to a two-hour-a-day commute, not having an interesting place to eat other than Applebee’s,” Robinson says. “It’s going to start hitting us in the next year or so. Oh my god, am I really going to move? Or am I going to deal with the schools that are here?”