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Romney's scholarship plan favors richer school districts

Suburban whites would largely be tuition winners

A scholarship proposal that Governor Mitt Romney is touting to help working-class families would give the edge to richer school districts, a Globe analysis shows.

Romney's Adams Scholarship program, which he announced during his State of the State address in January, would award free public college tuition to the top quarter of MCAS scorers. Because the scholarship selection would rest solely on test scores and because wealthier students tend to score higher, the students most likely to qualify would need the help the least.

The districts with the largest share of winners under Romney's proposal are overwhelmingly affluent, suburban, and white, according to the Globe's review of MCAS scores for this year's junior class.

Christy Zweig, a junior at Dover-Sherborn Regional High School, would be a shoo-in for the scholarship. But Zweig, who attends school in one of the state's wealthiest school districts, is not even considering attending a Massachusetts public university. At Dover-Sherborn, where the median family income is $148,000, two out of three juniors would qualify.

Meanwhile, Ihab Rashad, who works three days a week to save money for a public college, would have no chance of winning one of the scholarships. Rashad, a 16-year-old junior from Lawrence, scored near the top of his class on the MCAS test, but not high enough to make the cut. At Lawrence High, where median family income is $32,000, only 3 percent of students in the junior class would qualify for the scholarships.

Every school district in the state and its percentage of students qualifying under Romney's plan is listed at www.boston.com/mcas. In other states, similar scholarship plans reach more income levels by including grades and other factors or by rewarding top scorers in each school. By contrast, Romney said his plan would encourage students to work harder because he has established a statewide competition based on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams.

At Boston's Hyde Park High School, not a single junior, including the expected valedictorian, would qualify for an Adams scholarship, state records show. The Hyde Park headmaster, Linda Cabral, said the Adams scholarship could be a powerful incentive if students thought they had a chance at a scholarship.

"I'd ask the governor, is this getting at what we want to achieve?" Cabral said.

Romney stands by his proposed John and Abigail Adams Scholarships. He said the awards will reward merit, lift the reputations of state institutions by luring more of the brightest students, and help families cope with rising college costs. About 17,000 juniors would be eligible for free tuition for four years. About 6,800 of that same group, or the top 10 percent, would also receive $2,000 a year toward fees, room, and board.

Romney said it is "silly" to focus on the well-off school districts in which a majority of students qualify for the scholarships. The key, he said, is looking at which students will use the awards. The state already helps out students like Rashad with $95 million worth of need-based financial aid, the governor said. Few high-achievers in affluent districts, such as Zweig, will be wooed to the University of Massachusetts by a $1,700 tuition waiver and $2,000 cash, he said.

"You could say, `Boy, the rich people are all going to get this,' " Romney said. But "the rich people don't take advantage of it. The question is, who uses it? High-income families in Concord and Carlisle and Weston do not go to public institutions of higher learning."

The students who really need help, he said, are the children of families in the middle.

"Working-class families have a hard time paying for school," Romney said. "I believe that Everett, Revere, Waltham, Medford -- those families are going to find this kind of program to be just the extra help they need."

In working-class Everett, where Romney met last month with students to promote his plan before television cameras, 47 students out of 380 are now eligible. That number would double if scholarships went to the top quarter in each district, although such a plan would cost more, because the scholarships would go to more students in needier districts.

Even though just 12 percent of his students could qualify, Everett's school superintendent, Frederick F. Foresteire, embraces the Romney plan.

"Our kids get accepted to top schools, but the tuition drives them out," Foresteire said. "So with something like this here, our youngsters are going to take advantage of it."

Romney's plan takes into account that most students eligible for the scholarships will reject them; his $12 million budget request would pay for just 40 percent of the 17,000 eligible students. The money does not roll over to students below the top 25 percent if winners don't claim the awards.

That's unfortunate for Lawrence High's Rashad, who falls just short of the top quarter in the state. Out of a possible 280 on each test, he earned a 256 in English and a 252 in math.

Rashad, who came to the United States from Egypt about five years ago, dreams of becoming a corporate lawyer. He splits his time among school, football, track, volleyball, and a part-time job at a grocery store. His father works at Malden Mills; his mother, at Filene's. His older brother is studying engineering at at UMass-Lowell, and Rashad wants to go there, too.

But how to pay for it? The subject comes up almost every day in the Rashad household. The youth knows that his chances of winning an Adams Scholarship rest solely on test scores, but he said circumstances should count for something. His high school in Lawrence, an old mill city north of Boston, lost its accreditation in 1997. It shut down almost all of its MCAS preparation programs when the Legislature cut tutoring funds.

Still, the school has 30 juniors who scored in the advanced range on the MCAS, but only 16 make the cut for Romney's scholarships, based on their first scores on 10th-grade math and English MCAS tests. Students could take the full exam one more time by the end of their junior year to qualify.

If he won a scholarship, Rashad said, he would accept it. "It means a lot in a city where you're at the bottom," he said.

At the other extreme is Dover-Sherborn, a semirural school district of two upper-income suburbs west of Boston. Under Romney's proposal, Dover-Sherborn is one of 27 school districts where at least half of the junior class would be eligible for free tuition if they chose a state university. But last year, just 7 percent of Dover-Sherborn's 104 graduating seniors picked Massachusetts public colleges or universities, school officials said.

Zweig, whose father is a management consultant, said she would think about UMass, but it is not among her top choices. She hopes to study psychology at Amherst College or Boston University. The one public school on her list? The University of Colorado at Boulder.

"In this school, you're sort of brought up with an attitude that UMass is a good place to go, but not the best," Zweig said.

The Adams Scholarships will not truly pay for most of a student's college costs. The tuition for UMass-Amherst is $1,714 per year for Massachusetts residents, but fees and room and board cost another $13,016.

The share of scholarships going to more affluent students could increase if Romney adds private and parochial students to the mix. Romney said he wants them to be eligible for the scholarships, if they pay to take the MCAS tests. Now, only public students take the MCAS, a high school graduation requirement.

Brian K. Fitzgerald, staff director of a congressional advisory committee on financial aid, said it is more equitable to use a combination of test scores and grade point averages and to require students to compete against peers in their own schools. That way, he said, low-income students are competing against students from similar backgrounds, and the state is not just paying high-income families to keep their children in Massachusetts.

If the Democrat-controlled Legislature approves the Republican governor's plan by this summer, this year's graduating seniors could be the first recipients. Key lawmakers have backed the idea of helping high-scoring students, but haven't endorsed Romney's particular plan.

Romney said he is open to discussing changes in his proposal, so long as students are selected on merit.

"When you're getting ready to go to medical school or law school," Romney said, "or you're thinking about that job, someone says: `Oh, boy, you went to a school that gave you a lousy education. We're going to hire you anyway.' That's not how it works."

Anand Vaishnav can be reached at vaishnav@globe.com, and Bill Dedman at dedman@globe.com.

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