Study Finds Massachusetts Would Benefit from Adopting Education Savings Accounts

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“ESA programs are a proven way to address achievement gaps because they break the relationship between discriminatory housing patterns and public-school assignments that are based on residence.” – Dr. Cara Candal, author of “Modeling an Education Savings Account for Massachusetts”

Programs have been gaining momentum across the country in the wake of unprecedented pandemic learning loss

Massachusetts provides fewer options for students to be educated outside their assigned school districts than most other states do, and educational savings accounts (ESAs) offer an effective tool for giving students additional opportunities, according to a new study published by Pioneer Institute.

ESAs allow parents to take the state portion of their child’s per-pupil funding allocation and spend it on approved expenses that usually replace the district school experience, such as homeschooling, full-time tutoring or private school tuition.

“Despite an overall high ranking on National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, Massachusetts also has some of the starkest achievement gaps,” said Dr. Cara Candal, author of “Modeling an Education Savings Account for Massachusetts.” “ESA programs are a proven way to address that problem because they break the relationship between discriminatory housing patterns and public-school assignments that are based on residence.”

Dr. Candal finds that support for ESAs has gained momentum thanks to the unprecedented learning loss that occurred when schools switched to online learning because of the pandemic. Five ESA programs were established between 2011 and 2018, and that number has doubled in this year alone.

“Remote learning offered many parents their first real glimpse into the type and amount of instruction their kids were receiving,” said Pioneer Director of School Reform Jamie Gass. “Many were not happy with what they saw.”

A 2021 review of 169 high-quality studies shined a light on the impact of school choice programs on student achievement, racial segregation, and state and district finances. Of 14 studies of student outcomes, 11 found that choice programs had a positive effect.

Six studies found that choice programs tend to move students to less segregated schools, while one found that the programs had no effect on school segregation.

Regarding the impact of school choice on taxpayers and public schools, 65 studies found that the programs save money, four found them to be revenue neutral, and five concluded that they cost taxpayers money. Many of the programs save money because the amount parents can apply to other schooling options is less than current per-pupil funding levels.

A 2021 study of Florida’s large tax-credit scholarship program found that participants performed on a par with their national private school peers in reading and math. The results were particularly striking because program participants had an average household income of just $32,000 per year.
Another 2021 study of the same program found that school districts from which the highest concentration of students came also benefitted from the program. They were found to have higher test scores and lower absenteeism and suspension rates.

Dr. Candal proposes two potential ESA programs for Massachusetts. An incremental program could use a portion of the American Rescue Plan money that has been allocated to the state Legislature and could be used for direct payments to parents.

If this State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund money were used to provide the parents of every economically disadvantaged student in Massachusetts with $3,000 that could be used for services such as tutoring, special education services, and after-school enrichment classes – but not private school tuition – the Legislature would still have 80 percent of the money in the fund left over.
Unlike 29 states, Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, Massachusetts offers no state-subsidized access to privately provided education. Dr. Candal’s bolder and more impactful option, a tax credit-funded ESA, would change that.

Here the Commonwealth would designate a state entity or one or more non-profit scholarship granting organizations to solicit and accept donations in exchange for a tax credit equal to 95-100 percent of the donation. The scholarships could then be awarded to families whose income is less than or equal to 250 percent of the federal poverty line.

Awards of something close to the average annual Massachusetts per-pupil expenditure of $17,500 could then be used for private school tuition and other educational enhancements.

About the Author
Cara Stillings Candal is a Senior Fellow at Pioneer Institute. She has an extensive background in national and international education policy and teacher development, and she is the author/editor of numerous articles and several books about school university partnerships, charter schools, and other structural innovations in education.

About Pioneer
Pioneer’s mission is to develop and communicate dynamic ideas that advance prosperity and a vibrant civic life in Massachusetts and beyond. Pioneer’s vision of success is a state and nation where our people can prosper and our society thrive because we enjoy world-class options in education, healthcare, transportation and economic opportunity, and where our government is limited, accountable and transparent. Pioneer values an America where our citizenry is well-educated and willing to test our beliefs based on facts and the free exchange of ideas, and committed to liberty, personal responsibility, and free enterprise.

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