Private School Choice to Overcome Massachusetts-Rhode Island Education Gap


As mentioned yesterday, Massachusetts public schools put Rhode Island public schools to shame when it came to scores on the Common Core–aligned Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests in their first year.  At least for a few news cycles, the question around the state will be how to close that gap.

Rhode Island’s poor performance applies too consistently across the state for closing gaps between districts and student groups to be the solution (even if it were possible to target improvements so narrowly), and high per-student spending proves the answer isn’t more money poured into our broken education system.  Meanwhile, the sort of fix-the-system reforms that Rhode Island pursued in the last decade proved to have a political ceiling.

That leaves broad school choice reform, which can save money, close achievement gaps between groups and districts, and work almost immediately.  For some evidence of that third claim, turn to a short report that I put together for the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity.  It looks at SAT scores for three types of schools: public schools, religiously affiliated private schools, and independent private schools.  My thesis was that Rhode Islanders are utilizing religiously affiliated private schools at nation-leading rates because they’re lower-cost alternatives.  In other words, they’re as close to school choice as most families can get.

Apart from looking at school utilization, the report looked at test scores, and using the math test, one chart showed that RI public schools perform below the public-school average for all states in which at least half of students take the SATs while private schools in RI have comparable results to those in other states, and private schools outperformed public schools everywhere.  In other words, using private schools not only gains Rhode Island families access to schools with better results than their local public schools, but it also eliminates any deficit between Rhode Island and other states.

So, in light of the PARCC results, what do we see if we narrow this view to just Rhode Island and Massachusetts?  The first thing to observe is that private schools in both states continue to offer an advantage over public schools for all tests.  Notably, religiously affiliated private schools in Rhode Island have twice the margin over local public schools as similar schools in Massachusetts.


Not only that, but religiously affiliated private schools in Rhode Island greatly reduce the gap between the two states.  On the reading and writing tests, there is almost no gap between Massachusetts and Rhode Island among such schools.


This spring, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity showed that a broad school choice program that allowed families some portion of their state aid to apply toward private schools or homeschooling would save significant money for Rhode Island’s education system, which could be reinvested in education, put toward crumbling school buildings, or be used for some other priority.  The SAT results suggest that it would also immediately begin closing Rhode Island students’ gap with their neighbors to the north, and those neighbors have long enjoyed the best results in the country on the Nation’s Report Card.

  • Joe Smith

    According to the College Board, there were just over 8,000 SAT test takers in RI last year. 6200 or so from publics (out of 11-12th GR population of 43,000) and 1500 from religious privates (out of 11-12 GR population of 3600). So, you have 43% from religious privates take the SAT and only 15% from publics. Your 77% for publics is a bit misleading in that it represents the school of test takers, but only 15% of the entire state public 11-12 GR population.
    Now, add that there is a difference in gender results (Males do better) and for publics, the test takers are over represented by females (55%) while for privates, the test takers are over represented by males (53%).
    Then, add the scores are highly correlated (of course) with family income levels and 40% of the households of test takers earn more than 100K and only 20% are in the 20-60K range.
    So, if you can pull data from the Collegeboard that matches representative males and females from the 20-60K range from both privates and publics, and better yet for school as well, but even at the first level and you get the same gap, then I’m with you all the way to subsidize those 20-60K families to attend private schools.
    If you pull from the 25% of the above $140K range as well, my bet is you wouldn’t see much statistically significant difference between the publics and privates – but if you did, then I’m with you as well.
    But to show the aggregate data and pass it off as proof that simply subsidizing *broadly* private school attendance is tenuous.
    Find the 20-60K families in privates (probably the athletes on “academic scholarship”..) and compare them to the 20-60K students at EG, Classical or Barrington and the 20-60K students from Central Falls, Woonsocket, and Pawtucket — by gender – and see how those groups compare. Passing SAT data off as “representative” of educational performance improvement seems a bit of a leap given you are excluding 85% of public 11-12th graders.
    That of course even assumes the SAT is a good assessment of educational learning or success – the most recent studies I believe show SAT is not a great predictor of college success. I’ll defer on “learning” as defining and measuring that is problematic.
    And saying it’s a fix for the 25% of test takers coming from 140K -200K families seems like you are simply subsidizing those who were either pre-disposed or not to send their kids to private school and are already (relatively) scoring well (Math/Reading) on the SAT – the gap between RI and MA at the upper income levels is small,
    Except at the >200K income level, where MA does way better — so should we subsidize the RI kids from those families because the gap seems higher there than even at the lowest income levels?

    • OceanStateCurrent

      1. A lower percentage of test-taking should work in the public schools advantage. That’s why states with very few SAT takers do so much better. That factor makes my point stronger, not weaker, and undermines your objections to some extent.
      2. I don’t know where you’re getting your numbers. RIDE enrollment data has between 21,000 and 22,000 total juniors and seniors in public school, not 43,000, and the College Board data shows that juniors taking the test are a relative rarity (about 25% of test takers).
      3. As for gender, even if we allow that gender is the more important factor (rather than type of school, for example), there’s reason to question its effect, here. After all, the female advantage in independent private school is even larger than in public schools, yet the scores are better even than in religiously affiliated private schools.
      4. The broader point, though, is only partly that private schools do better. Arguably more important is that, whatever the differences between public and private schools, the gap between Rhode Island and other states (including MA) is much less among the religiously affiliated schools.
      5. And on the policy prescription, it’s kinda implicit in the argument that what we’d be doing is giving students who are underperforming, although from motivated families, to go to schools that can help them perform.