July 24, 2014 3:06PM

Expanding Educational Opportunity in the Bay State

One of the central promises of educational choice is expanding equality of opportunity.  When students are assigned to schools based on where they live, access to higher-performing schools depends on a family’s ability to afford a home in a more expensive community. This disparity between higher- and lower-income families persists even in academically high-performing states like Massachusetts.

Though the Bay State consistently ranks among the very top performers on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and is internationally competitive in math and science, these aggregate scores obscure the reality that performance varies considerably across districts, particularly along socio-economic lines.

In wealthier towns and cities like Dover and Weston, where the median household income is $184,646 and $180,815 respectively, students perform well. On the 2013 state assessment (the MCAS), 99 percent of Dover-Sherborn Regional High School students scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in math, and 100 percent scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in English. Likewise, 97 percent of Weston High School students scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in math and 99 percent scored proficient or advanced in English. 

By contrast, students from lower-income communities like Chelsea and New Bedford, where the median household income is $43,155 and $37,493 respectively, often do not perform nearly as well. On the most recent MCAS, only 61 percent of Chelsea High School students scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in math and 77 percent scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in English. So too, only 49 percent of New Bedford High School students scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in math, and 76 percent scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in English. 

This pattern is repeated across the commonwealth – in the 10 poorest cities and towns in Massachusetts, only 40.6 percent of students scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ on the MCAS score compared to a statewide average of 65.1 percent. In 2013 the percentage of low-income students who scored ‘proficient’ or ‘advanced’ in English or math in all grades was approximately 33 points below the percentage for higher-income students.

One might assume that the differences in performance across income groups reflect disparate funding levels, yet there is scant evidence that increased school resources lead to increased student performance. Indeed, after adjusting for inflation, K-12 spending in the United States has tripled since 1970, but NAEP scores have remained essentially flat.

Wealthier families already have educational choice. They can afford to live in communities with higher-performing schools, like Dover and Weston, or they can send their children to private schools. Since they have the ability to exit, the district schools must be responsive to their children’s needs. By contrast, lower-income families often have only one viable option: the district school to which their children are assigned. They are a captive audience, so their schools become de facto monopolies. And while some low-income families are able to send their children to METCO or charter schools, there are more than 10,000 students on waiting lists for METCO schools and more than 40,000 students on waiting lists for charter schools, demonstrating both the demand for and lack of additional educational options.

Poverty certainly plays a significant role in the varied performance, but high quality studies consistently show that educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for low-income students, often to a greater degree than for higher-income students. While educational choice programs are not a panacea, they are a precondition to ensuring equality of opportunity.

A scholarship tax credit (STC) program tailored to Massachusetts’ needs could expand educational opportunity for thousands of students from low-income families while remaining revenue neutral or even saving the commonwealth money. In a new study, jointly published by Pioneer Institute and Cato Institute, “Giving Kids Credit:  Using Scholarship Tax Credits to Increase Educational Opportunity in Massachusetts,” Professor Ken Ardon and I propose a state tax credit worth 90 percent of the amount a corporate or individual taxpayer donates to a qualified scholarship organization.  The organization would then use the money to provide scholarships averaging between $4,000 and $4,500 for students whose family income is below 200 percent of the federal poverty line.  Families would use the money toward the cost of attending non-public or out-of-district public schools.

Some might question whether scholarships of that size might be useful to low-income families in a state where the average private school tuition is nearly $20,000. However, that figure is skewed by the presence of numerous expensive boarding schools. When reviewing the published private school tuitions in the five poorest of Massachusetts’ 10 largest cities – Springfield, Fall River, New Bedford, Brockton, and Lynn – we found an average tuition of $4,470 for kindergarten, $4,173 for grades 1-5, $4,510 for grades 6-8 and $9,125 for high school. Moreover, those figures do not include all the tuition assistance that private schools already provide to low-income families.

In addition to benefiting low-income students, an STC program produces savings for taxpayers when the amount of money that would have been spent on the scholarship students had they attended a district school exceeds the reduction tax revenue from the tax credits. We estimate that our proposed STC law would save the commonwealth of Massachusetts approximately $41 million in year one and the savings would grow to approximately $222 million by year five.

Few proposals promise to simultaneously expand educational opportunity for low-income students and save money while doing so. Yet this is no pipe dream. There are currently about 200,000 students attending the school of their choice using tax-credit scholarships in more than a dozen states, and the available evidence suggests that these programs are saving money. Though Florida’s STC law is the least likely candidate for savings because it offers a 100 percent tax credit and the most generous scholarships of any state, the Florida legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability estimated that Florida saved $1.44 for every forgone dollar of state tax revenue.  

The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts declares that the preservation of its citizens rights and liberties depend upon “spreading the opportunities and advantages of education” to all children, no matter their income. An education system that determines a child’s school based on the home her parents can afford fails to achieve the constitution’s vision. True equality of educational opportunity requires breaking the link between education and housing. The proposed scholarship tax credit would move the Commonwealth toward that vision by helping tens of thousands of low-income students attend the school of their choice.