The Best of the Blue States?

Though conservatives mainly think of Massachusetts in connection to the budget-busting coverage-first health reform legislation passed under Gov. Mitt Romney, it is worth noting that the Bay State has in many other respects been a model of fiscal rectitude and conservative policy innovation.

At Public Sector Inc., Daniel DiSalvo writes:

Believe it or not, the Democrat-dominated Massachusetts House voted overwhelmingly (111-42) to remove public employee health care as a subject of mandatory collected bargaining. The move is understandable, as a recent Pew report indicates that the Bay State is among the five states that have funded only about a quarter of their liability for retiree health care. (Massachusetts isn’t the worst on this score, as 19 states have set aside no funds to pay these liabilities).  

DiSalvo starts off with a disbelieving tone, but this shouldn’t come as a shock. As Josh Barro detailed in “Do Property Tax Caps Work?,” Massachusetts has had considerable success in restraining the growth of government spending and the tax burden since the success of 1980′s Proposition 2.5. As Josh explains, Massachusetts has made impressive strides in K-12, particularly for less affluent students, particularly when compared to higher-spending New Jersey:

Despite their lower spending levels, Massachusetts’s public schools are the country’s clear top performers, as measured by National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exams administered by the U.S. Department of Education. In 2009, Massachusetts outperformed New Jersey in both reading and math in grades four and eight (though for grade eight, the gap in reading performance is within the margin of error).

Massachusetts’s stronger NAEP performance is not explained by favorable demographics. Within most demographic groups, students in Massachusetts achieved higher average NAEP scores than their counterparts in New Jersey. Hispanics and Asians/Pacific Islanders were a notable exception. Massachusetts students eligible for subsidized lunch or who were English-language learners also matched or outperformed their counterparts in New Jersey on the NAEP exams, despite lower spending in districts with high concentrations of such students.

Of course, Massachusetts’s relative success in K-12 did not happen magically. All the tax cap did was create a constructive pressure to deliver improvements in educational outcomes cost-effectively. 

So what did Massachusetts do? Amanda Ripley interviewed a number of education experts on that question:

“If all American fourth- and eighth-grade kids did as well in math and science as they do in Massachusetts,” writes the veteran education author Karin Chenoweth in her 2009 book, How It’s Being Done, “we still wouldn’t be in Singapore’s league but we’d be giving Japan and Chinese Taipei a run for their money.” Is it because Massachusetts is so white? Or so immigrant-free? Or so rich? Not quite. Massachusetts is indeed slightly whiter and slightly better off than the U.S. average. But in the late 1990s, it nonetheless lagged behind similar states—such as Connecticut and Maine—in nationwide tests of fourth- and eighth-graders. It was only after a decade of educational reforms that Massachusetts began to rank first in the nation.

Note that the late 1990s came well after Prop 2.5. At the time, it’s a safe bet that educators in the state insisted that only by raising taxes and spending could the schools be improved. Yet it seems that the schools were improved on the cheap through the use of the embrace of a controversial effort to measure outcomes:

What did Massachusetts do? Well, nothing that many countries (and industries) didn’t do a long time ago. For example, Massachusetts made it harder to become a teacher, requiring newcomers to pass a basic literacy test before entering the classroom. (In the first year, more than a third of the new teachers failed the test.) The state also required students to pass a test before graduating from high school—a notion so heretical that it led to protests in which students burned state superintendent David Driscoll in effigy. To help tutor the kids who failed, the state moved money around to the places where it was needed most. “We had a system of standards and held people to it—adults and students,” Driscoll says.

Massachusetts, in other words, began demanding meaningful outcomes from everyone in the school building. Obvious though it may seem, it’s an idea that remains sacrilegious in many U.S. schools, despite the clumsy advances of No Child Left Behind. Instead, we still fixate on inputs—such as how much money we are pouring into the system or how small our class sizes are—and wind up with little to show for it. Since the early 1970s, we’ve doubled the amount of money we spend per pupil nationwide, but our high schoolers’ reading and math scores have barely budged. Per student, we now spend more than all but three other countries—Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Norway—on elementary and secondary education. And the list of countries that spend the most, notably, has little in common with the outcomes that Hanushek and his colleagues put into rank order. (The same holds true on the state level, where New York, one of the highest-spending states—it topped the list at $17,000 per pupil in 2008—still comes in behind fifteen other states and thirty countries on Hanushek’s list.)

So perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to discount Massachusetts, which, I’ll note in passing, also has a flat rate of state income tax. Now if only they could do something about the weather, and about the state’s health law that just might put a spanner in the works. (Of course, the federal health law could level the playing field such that all states found themselves in a bind.)

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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