Pioneer Institute Launches Drive for Choice in Mass.

Published February 1, 2006

The people at Massachusetts’ Pioneer Institute think their state has gone long enough without seriously considering school choice. On January 31, they released two pro-voucher reports–the first step in a planned three-year school choice campaign.

“We have a voucher research initiative to evaluate the short- and long-term prospects of education reform,” explained Jamie Gass, Pioneer’s director of education research and programs. “Generally speaking, we think as much choice as possible is best for Massachusetts.”

In Making the Case: Why Should We Study Vouchers? the institute lays out its main argument for choice, asserting that while reforms such as increased education funding and tests have produced advances, “a closer look at educational outcomes reveals it is critically important that we go further still in our efforts to improve public education.”

Driving Improvement

The report points out several achievement shortfalls, especially in urban areas. For example, in 2005, 19 of the state’s 22 urban districts failed to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) in both English and math as required by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

In search of a solution to lagging achievement, the researchers drew on studies of choice in Massachusetts and beyond. They found it drives academic improvement, and they concluded more choice is needed to fix the state’s academic shortfalls.

“Massachusetts parents continue to beat the drum for alternative choices to the traditional public education system,” the report states. “Unfortunately for them, there are few alternatives and those that do exist are narrowing.”

Making Choice Work

Even though increased choice is desirable, private schools would have to be willing and able to accept voucher students for vouchers to work. In Pioneer’s second paper, Massachusetts Private School Survey: Gauging Capacity and Interest in Vouchers, authors Kathryn Ciffolillo and Elena Llaudet find many Bay State private schools would participate in a choice program, making thousands of seats available to voucher students.

To assess how many schools would participate in a voucher program, Pioneer sent surveys to all 524 of Massachusetts’ private, K-12, non-special education institutions. Of the 194 that responded, 138 said they would accept voucher students, offering a total of 7,400 seats. Most also reported they would do so for vouchers worth less than the public schools’ average per-pupil expenditure.

Gauging Interest

Next, Ciffolillo and Llaudet estimated the number of students who would be eligible to participate in a voucher system, analyzing a hypothetical program in which only children from low-income families attending schools that have failed to meet AYP for four or more years are eligible for vouchers. Under those conditions, they estimated 21,495 current students would qualify.

To determine how many students could be accommodated immediately in such a program, the researchers estimated approximately 2,500 grade-appropriate seats would be available in private schools near the failing districts.

The report concludes, “enough interest and capacity [exists] among private schools in Massachusetts for a voucher program to be successfully launched.”

Facing Challenges

Despite Pioneer’s positive outlook, choice faces daunting hurdles in Massachusetts–chiefly, the state constitution’s so-called “Blaine amendment,” which prohibits state funds from going to sectarian schools. In Making the Case, Pioneer acknowledges the Blaine difficulties but notes the amendment is currently the subject of a legal challenge.

Whatever the outcome of that challenge, Sheila Decter, executive director of the Boston-based Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, said she does not think vouchers’ prospects are very good, noting she is “not seeing support for privatization in either the legislature or the citizenry,” adding “no voucher program will ever meet the needs of all children.”

Over the next three years, Pioneer will try to find out whether Decter is right.

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

For more information …

The Pioneer Institute’s private school survey is available online at

For more on the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, visit its Web site at