Tax credit scholarship program would give Catholic schools fighting chance

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I am among the countless individuals whose lives have been shaped by Catholic education; in my case, it was attending high school at Austin Prep. Despite a stellar record, Catholic schools are facing a grim financial picture. But a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision gives new hope to the schools and to the many Massachusetts families with children who would benefit from attending them.

Catholic schools use the liberal arts to deliver a classical education imbued with lessons in timeless values that appeal to parents of all religions. That’s why nearly 20 percent of the students who attend Archdiocese of Boston schools aren’t Catholic.

Massachusetts has among the best public schools in the country, yet Catholic schools outperform them in terms of SAT and other test scores, college attendance, and graduation rates. This even as the majority of Archdiocese of Boston elementary schools are in urban areas and serve overwhelmingly poor and minority student populations.

The schools achieve all this on a shoestring. Average annual tuition at an Archdiocese of Boston elementary school is $6,583, and most families receive financial aid. The schools rely on charitable donations to fill the gap between revenue from tuition and costs, but overall spending is still well below average public school per-pupil spending in the Commonwealth, which is nearly $16,500.

Despite producing outstanding results at low cost, Catholic schools are struggling for a number of reasons; among them the financial challenges posed by a steep decline in the number of nuns and priests who once enabled the system to deliver low-cost, high-quality education by providing nearly free labor.

There were 225 Catholic schools in Boston in 1942; by early last year, there were 100. Ten more have closed during the pandemic.

But a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court case offers hope that Catholic schools can continue their vital work. In Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue., the Court took an important step toward invalidating so-called Blaine Amendments to the constitutions of Massachusetts and many other states that prohibit public money from flowing to religious schools. The court held that if a state decides to direct aid to non-government institutions, it cannot exclude faith-based institutions from that aid solely because they are faith-based.

Blaine Amendments are a vestige of anti-Catholic bigotry, and Massachusetts has the dubious distinction of adopting among the first of them in 1855. This was the response of Bay State’s infamous Know-Nothing Party to the arrival of large numbers of immigrants fleeing the Irish Potato Famine.

A new book published by Pioneer Institute, “A Vision of Hope: Catholic Schools in Massachusetts,” details how the amendment was approved even as the Commonwealth’s public schools openly taught Protestant doctrine.

The amendment’s unfairness is amplified by the fact that Catholic school parents pay tuition as well as taxes to support schools their children don’t attend, saving state and local taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars a year. During my tenure in the state Senate, I twice supported unsuccessful efforts to repeal the amendment.

In “A Vision of Hope,” co-authors Ken Ardon, Jason Bedrick and Martin Lueken propose tax credit scholarships under which taxpayers receive credits for contributions to scholarship granting organizations that provide students with funding to attend schools other than their assigned public school. Such a program would likely have been impermissible prior to Espinoza.

The tax credits would offer 10,000 scholarships in their first year to students who qualify based on need, would save money or be revenue-neutral for the Commonwealth, and would produce savings for school districts.

There are 24 such programs in 19 states that serve more than 300,000 students, including ones in neighboring New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Almost all are need-based.

A consensus of high-quality research finds that tax credit programs produce better test scores, as well as higher graduation and college attendance rates. Twenty-five out of 27 studies in one recent literature review also found that the incentive to compete for students produced better outcomes at the public schools from which scholarship recipients come.

A tax credit scholarship program would help put Catholic education in Massachusetts on a sustainable footing. More importantly, it would allow more families to access high-quality educational choices like the one that changed my life and the lives of so many others.

Tom Birmingham is a former president of the Massachusetts Senate, coauthor of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993, and a senior fellow in education at the Pioneer Institute.