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.