Research & Commentary: Report Lays Out How Massachusetts Could Adopt Education Savings Account Program

Published August 11, 2022

A January 2022 white paper from the Pioneer Institute illustrates how a tax-credit funded education savings account (ESA) program might be the best way forward for pursuing educational reform in Massachusetts.

In Modeling an Education Savings Account for Massachusetts, Pioneer Institute Senior Fellow Cara Candal argues this type of ESA could possibly make its way around the commonwealth’s incredibly strict anti-Catholic Blaine amendment. The amendment currently bars public funding of faith-based schools, and which was not affected by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue overturning many of these relics of 19th century prejudice.

The Bay State’s Blaine amendment reads: “No grant, appropriation or use of public money or property or loan of credit shall be made or authorized by the Commonwealth or any political subdivision thereof for the purpose of founding, maintaining or aiding any infirmary, hospital, institution, primary or secondary school, or charitable or religious undertaking which is not publicly owned and under the exclusive control, order and supervision of public officers or public agents authorized by the Commonwealth or federal authority or both.”

The workaround would be to fund the ESA as if it were a tax-credit scholarship program. Tax-credit scholarship programs allow individuals and businesses to contribute to a non-profit scholarship-granting organization which handles the funds. In return, individuals and businesses would receive a tax credit from the commonwealth that usually matches their contribution dollar-for-dollar. These donations, not commonwealth funds, would then be used to provide ESA scholarships to families that meet the eligibility requirements and apply for them.

“While the Commonwealth’s Blaine amendment is particularly restrictive, a tax-credit approach may pass muster,” Candal explains, “Hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts parents already receive federal and state tax benefits for education spending when they contribute to 529 education savings accounts. In 2018 the U.S. Congress authorized the use of 529 college savings plans for K–12 private school expenses. Parents across the country and in the Commonwealth use 529 contributions to pay tuition at private K–12 schools (including faith-based schools) and institutions of higher education, receiving ‘tax deductions, tax-free investment earnings, or tax-free withdrawals in exchange.’ Like a 529 savings account, an ESA is merely a state sanctioned mechanism to match private dollars to private citizens who can use them via a tax incentive.”

There are currently 26 separate tax-credit scholarship programs operating in 21 states, and serving over 329,000 students. Missouri and Kentucky became the first two states to enact a tax-credit funded ESA program last year.

Copious empirical research on school choice programs such as tax-credit scholarships and ESAs makes clear these programs offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their children’s unique needs and circumstances, and that these programs improve academic performance and attainment while delivering a quality education at lower cost than traditional public schools.

Additionally, education choice benefits public school students and taxpayers by increasing competition, decreasing segregation, and improving civic values and practices. Research also shows students at private schools are less likely than their public school peers to experience problems such as alcohol abuse, bullying, drug use, fighting, gang activity, racial tension, theft, vandalism, and weapon-based threats. There is also a strong causal link suggesting private school choice programs improve the mental health of participating students.

Further, Massachusetts’ public schools, as highly-touted as they may be, are habitually failing the commonwealth’s children. In 2019, only 50 percent of public school fourth-graders and 47 percent of eighth-graders tested “proficient” to grade level in mathematics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) examination, colloquially known as the “Nation’s Report Card.” Just 45 percent of fourth-graders and 45 percent of eighth-graders tested “proficient” in reading. Essentially, and embarrassingly, the commonwealth’s public schools are failing to educate roughly half of Bay State children to grade-level proficiency in reading and math.

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the numbers for Boston Public Schools are even worse than the state average. In 2019, just 32 percent of Boston fourth-graders and 35 percent of eighth-graders tested “proficient” to grade level in mathematics on NAEP. Only 27 percent of fourth-graders and 30 percent of eighth-graders tested proficient in reading.

It is probably for all these reasons, and also because teacher unions have repeatedly played politics with school closings during the COVID-19 pandemic in direct conflict with students’ best interests, that education choice programs like ESAs are more popular with parents than ever before. Polling by EdChoice released in September 2021 found 78 percent support for ESAs among the general public and 84 percent among current school parents. These findings are mirrored in the American Federation for Children’s eighth-annual National School Choice Poll, released in March 2022, which found 77 percent support for ESA programs.

Massachusetts legislators would do a great service to their constituents and the commonwealth’s children by pursuing a tax-credit funded ESA program in the future. The goal of public education in the Bay State today and in the years to come should be to allow all parents to choose which schools their children attend, require every school to compete for every student who walks through its doors, and make sure every child can attend a quality school.

The following documents provide more information about education savings accounts and school choice.

Modeling an Education Savings Account for Massachusetts
This white paper from the Pioneer Institute details how Massachusetts could adopt a tax-credit funded education savings account program to circumvent the commonwealth’s notoriously strict Blaine amendment.

The 123s of School Choice (2020 Edition)
This report from EdChoice is an in-depth review of the available research on private school choice programs in America. Areas of study include: private school choice program participant test scores, program participant attainment, parent satisfaction, public school students’ test scores, civic values and practices, racial/ethnic integration and fiscal effects.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by EdChoice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

Fiscal Effects of School Choice
This EdChoice analysis of 40 private educational choice programs in 19 states plus D.C. summarizes the facts and evidence on the fiscal effects of educational choice programs across the United States and finds they have provided up to $28.3 billion in net fiscal savings to state and local taxpayers through Fiscal Year 2018. The programs in the analysis include three education savings accounts programs (ESAs), 19 school voucher programs, and 18 tax-credit scholarship programs.

The Public Benefit of Private Schooling: Test Scores Rise When There Is More of It
This Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute examines the effect increased access to private schooling has had on international student test scores in 52 countries. The Cato researchers found that a 1 percentage point increase in the share of private school enrollment would lead to moderate increases in students’ math, reading, and science achievement.

The Effects of School Choice on Mental Health
This study from Corey DeAngelis at the Cato Institute and Angela K. Dills of Western Carolina University empirically examines the relationship between school choice and mental health. It finds that states adopting broad-based voucher programs and charter schools witness declines in adolescent suicides and suggests that private schooling reduces the number of times individuals are seen for mental health issues.

Child Safety Accounts: Protecting Our Children through Parental Freedom
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Vicki Alger, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and research fellow at the Independent Institute, and Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson detail the prevalence of bullying, harassment, and assault taking place in America’s public schools and the difficulties for parents in having their child moved from a school that is unsafe for them. Alger and Benson propose a Child Safety Account program, which would allow parents to immediately have their child moved to a safe school – private, parochial, or pub­lic – as soon as parents feel the public school their child is currently attending is too dangerous to their child’s physical or emotion­al health.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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