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If We Copied Massachusetts, Would We Get An A+ For Education?

In Washington state, we look at Massachusetts with envy.

Massachusetts has a top-ranked education system, whereas Washington is in the lower middle.

Our state Supreme Court has called us out on this and demanded that lawmakers come up with money to fully fund education.

Twenty years ago, Massachusetts also faced a court order to get its act together, prompting lawmakers to change how schools are supported. The state’s goal now is true equity for every kid, rich or poor. But is the money really getting to the kids most in need?

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That question plays out in a preschool class in Quinsigamond, Worcester. Worcester is a bedroom community in the far reaches of the Boston commuter zone, but don’t think of it as suburban.

“This is inner city,” says Nancy O’Coin, the assistant principal at Quinsigamond School. “Suburbia, they have all the arts; they have the extra. We only have physical education and art and music once a week here.”

Quinsigamond has 800 students, many of them immigrants. When these pupils are not in class, life is often tough for them.

“A lot of them don’t like vacation because they won’t have food all vacation,” O’Coin says. "We have to deal with emotional, social growth more than anything, to even begin academic growth with our children."

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Students from stressed families often need help preparing for kindergarten. But at Quinsigamond, there’s only one preschool classroom, which it offers a half-day program. (In contrast, Washington is still gearing up to pay for all-day kindergarten at every school across the entire state.)

Cindy Bly, the preschool teacher at Quinsigamond, says Massachusetts is trying.

“They’re working toward universal preschool for everyone,” Bly says. “I think they’re actually trying to work for a full day universal for everyone.”

For now, Quinsigamond turns children away.

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Two decades ago, Massachusetts changed how it paid for schools by relying more on local property taxes to pay for local education. The state then adds money according to a formula that determines the community’s real education needs. Communities are allowed to add money beyond what is considered adequate, and many do.

This method favors schools in richer communities, where property taxes are large and the community can throw extra money at education.

So how do poorer communities meet their needs? The court order 20 years ago spurred funding changes in Massachusetts to ensure the state would step in to do just that.

But it hasn't been perfect, and now schools' needs have grown.

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Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, says that initial infusion of money is no longer there, as paying for education has become more expensive.

“We are a billion dollars underfunding our schools,” Madeloni says. “Of course, as happens everywhere, the schools that are suffering the most are the ones where the students come in with the highest needs.”

Still, Massachusetts’s top academic ranking looks appealing from Washington state's vantage point: highest in college graduations. Best reading and math scores.

In Washington, Treasurer James McIntire says he has considered whether we should follow the Massachusetts funding example.

But one big thing stands in the way: Washington's state constitution.

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“If you want to amend the constitution to take that term ‘paramount duty’ out of it, we could do something like what Massachusetts does,” McIntire says.

Then counties could step in, raise property taxes and use that money to pay for what the state does not. But he asked, what if some local areas — such as those outside of the wealthy Puget Sound region — couldn't raise the money?

"In Washington I think the disparities would be significant,” he says. “I’m not sure that that’s the right thing to do.”

In Washington, the solution to state underfunding remains is up in the air. And in Massachusetts, there is a proposal. The state teachers union says a tax on millionaires would raise more money for schools like Quinsigamond.

They are working to put that on the ballot in 2018.

This story was produced in partnership with the Ravitch Fiscal Reporting Program at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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