April 15, 2014

Unappointed Charter School Commission Undermines Intent Of Law

School Icon

In 2012, the Missouri General Assembly passed a bipartisan charter school law. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, the bill “could expand charter schools statewide while making it easier to weed out underperforming ones.” That was the intent of the law, to expand and to improve charter schools in Missouri. A key part of this effort was the creation of “The Missouri Charter Public School Commission.” Last year, the Missouri Legislature approved $300,000 for operations of the commission. Yet, almost two years after being established in state statute, that commission has yet to be appointed.

Senate Bill 576 (2012) states the “commission shall consist of nine members appointed by the governor, by and with the advice and consent of the senate.” The governor is to select four candidates, from slates that the commissioner of education, the commissioner of higher education, the president pro tempore of the Senate, and the speaker of the House of Representatives provide. The governor appoints the remaining five candidates, but one must be selected from a slate that the Missouri School Boards Association provides.

The commission would play an important and needed role.  Like universities, it could sponsor and oversee charter schools, but it also could serve as an important safeguard. The Southeast Missourian noted, “Under current law, the State Board of Education can suspend a charter school sponsor, but the board then takes responsibility for the schools.” The passed and signed legislation “would make the Missouri Charter Public School Commission responsible for those schools.”

By not appointing this commission, the intent of the law is not being fulfilled. I’m told that the slates have been submitted, but still no appointments have been made.  There is no reason to delay these appointments further.

April 14, 2014

Proactive Is The New Reactive

There is a lot of talk these days in Jefferson City about being proactive in public schools. Currently, when a school drops below a set performance mark, the district becomes unaccredited. Students are then able to transfer out of the district to a nearby accredited one. Many view this as a reactive, nuclear option. What we need, they say, is early intervention. We need to be proactive when a school starts to struggle. I hate to get tied up in semantics, but by definition, targeting schools that are struggling is reactive, not proactive. It is a reaction to their declining performance.

Lawmakers have their hearts in the right place, but they place too much confidence in their ability to dictate solutions from Jefferson City. After I testified before the Missouri House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee about the student transfer issue, one representative asked me what lawmakers should do to help those struggling school districts.

“What advice would you give us?” she asked.

“I would tell you that you cannot mandate excellence and you cannot dictate innovation,” I said.

“You would have us do nothing?” she asked.

“No, I would have you get out of the way,” I said. “Remove unnecessary restrictions and burdensome regulations. Free the local schools to innovate.”

Missouri could:

Reform teacher tenure policies; remove Last In, First Out provisions; and reform teacher pensions so schools have more flexibility in staffing decisions.

Change seat time and class restrictions that inhibit some blended learning and online learning models.

Try something like Kentucky’s “Districts of Innovation,” where school districts can become “exempt from certain administrative regulations and statutory provisions.”

Responding to government failure with more government action is not being proactive. Policies like the ones cited above are proactive. They put the power into the hands of the school leaders on the ground. A proactive system is one that gives school leaders the freedom to be innovative and gives parents the ability to choose.

April 11, 2014

Mark Your Calendars For Our April 25 Tax Credit Scholarship Event


When I speak about tax credit scholarships, I get a lot of questions: What is a tax credit scholarship? How would that work? What are the chances of that passing in Missouri?

If you want to find out the answer to these and other questions, join us on April 25 at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo. We are partnering with the Hammond Institute for Free Enterprise at Lindenwood University to present a dynamite event, “Expanded Opportunities: A Discussion About Tax Credit Scholarships.”

Jason Bedrick, of the Cato Institute, and Jonathan Butcher, of the Goldwater Institute, will present information about how these programs are working in other states. You can download their recent case studies for the Show-Me Institute about the New Hampshire and Arizona programs directly from our website.

Attendees also will be able to take part in a panel discussion with Missouri Sen. John Lamping (R-Dist. 24), Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal (D-Dist. 14), Missouri Speaker of the House Tim Jones (R-Dist. 110), and Rep. Michael Butler (D-Dist. 79).

RSVP online, mark your calendars, tell your friends, and join us on April 25.

April 10, 2014

Let’s Fix The Transfer Problem ‘One Piece At A Time’

One Piece at a Time” is one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs. In the song, a young man goes to “workin’ on a ‘sembly line” in a Detroit auto plant. He devises a plan to build a car by sneaking parts out one piece at a time. In the end, he has created a “’49, ’50, ’51, ’52, ’53, ’54, ’55, ’56, ’57, ’58, ’59 automobile.” I was reminded of this song as I drafted my testimony for Missouri Senate Committee Substitute for Senate Bills 493, 485, 495, 516, 534, 545, 595, 616, 624. It wasn’t just the name of the bill that reminded me of the song, but the way that so many different parts that seemingly do not go together were crammed into one bill.

Though the bill touches on many different topics, I tried to limit my testimony to the crux of the bill — the student transfer issue. As I said in my testimony:

Ever since the Missouri Supreme Court upheld a student’s right to transfer from an unaccredited school district to a nearby accredited one, Missouri school leaders have coordinated efforts to put an end to the transfer law. Some concerns regarding the transfer program hold merit. For instance, the current law has the potential to lead to the bankruptcy of unaccredited districts or to lead to overcrowding in accredited ones. Unfortunately, these problems have led many to ask, “How can we end student transfers?” rather than, “How can we make the transfer law work for students?”

Missouri Sen. David Pearce (R-Dist. 21) reiterated this point, stating that this bill is intended to reduce the number of students transferring.

Allowing students to choose their school is a good thing and we can make this program work for students if we institute four changes.

  1. Give accredited school districts the right to determine how many students they will accept.
  2. Fix the tuition calculation so that unaccredited districts will not be forced to pay rates that are higher than they spend themselves.
  3. Expand choice to private schools in the same or adjoining counties.
  4. Establish a fund to provide transportation for transfer students. Appropriations from general revenue and donations from the public could fund this.

You can read more details about my suggestions in my full testimony.

April 8, 2014

New On Show-Me Sunshine: School District Collective Bargaining Agreements

In 2007, the Missouri Supreme Court overruled 60 years of case law and determined that teachers have the right to organize and collectively bargain. At the Show-Me Institute, we wanted to determine how many districts have entered into collective bargaining agreements (CBA), so we requested CBAs from every public school district in Missouri with more than 1,000 students. Approximately one-fifth of the districts we contacted have a formal CBA. In the interest of transparency, we have posted those agreements online here.

April 4, 2014

The Myth Of The ‘No Tax Increase’ Bond Issue

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” is a common phrase in economics. It is a phrase that people must remember when considering “no tax increase” bond issues.

Bonds are one of the most common ways for school districts to fund construction of new buildings. They are essentially a loan and are a form of debt. To pay for this debt, school districts levy property taxes. Sometimes districts must levy new taxes to finance a bond and other times they are able to refinance an existing bond and hold the tax levy at the same rate. The latter often are labeled as “no tax increase” bond issues; but make no mistake, there is no such thing as “no tax increase” bond issue.

As I explain in this edition of “Show-Me Now,” a “no tax increase” bond issue is a lot like a home equity loan. Your mortgage company can refinance your loan to give you access to cash right now. Often, they are able to do this while holding your payment the same, but extending the length of your repayment. So instead of your payments ending in 10 years, they may be extended to 30 years. Whether you refinance or not, your monthly payment remains the same.

Bonds work in much the same way and school districts can “refinance” to extend the term of the bond. They market this to the public as a “no tax increase” bond issue and claim that your payment will not go down or up whether the issue passes or not. Your tax payment will not change, but you will be paying for a longer period of time.

There is no getting around it, paying the same rate for a longer period of time is a tax increase. Therefore, it is more appropriate to call these a “no tax levy increase” bond issue.

April 2, 2014

New Documentary Highlights Criticism Of Common Core

On Monday, the Home School Legal Defense Association released a documentary about the Common Core State Standards, “Building the Machine.” There is an obvious bias against the standards in the film, which means Common Core proponents undoubtedly will pan it as propaganda. Nevertheless, the documentary does present some pretty compelling criticisms of the Common Core development process and the standards themselves.

It also does something that Common Core proponents haven’t done very well; it treats individuals with opposing ideas with some respect, ominous music notwithstanding. For example, Michael Farris, founder of Home School Legal Defense Association, stated:

David Coleman [lead writer of Common Core] is a nice man…I don’t agree with his approach at all. I don’t agree with his philosophy. I think that on balance his proposals are not for the good of the public schools. They certainly aren’t good for homeschoolers or private schools. You know, I have some criticism there. But the man’s motives, I don’t think we should be attacking people for their motives. Because, he wants to try to improve the public school system. He genuinely believes that systemization and centralization and data collection are good things for kids.

His point was the underlying current of the film – people have deeply held convictions on issues of education and those convictions often vary.

The film ends with this message:

Decades of research show that the single most important element in a child’s education is parental involvement. So, regardless of which side you support in the reformation of America’s schools…Be involved.

That is good advice. In fact, it is the same advice Emily Watson shared on the Show-Me Daily blog about a month ago.

March 27, 2014

Spending ‘Brewster’s Millions’ On Missouri Public Schools

Brewsters Millions

Imagine your great uncle passes away and leaves you a huge sum of money, but there is a catch. To get the money, you have to spend $30 million on Missouri’s public education system and make a demonstrable impact on student achievement. Contrary to the plot of the 1985 comedy “Brewster’s Millions,” your great uncle demands results. Would you follow Missouri Budget Project’s advice and put the $30 million into the state’s foundation formula for public schools to make up for the funding gap?

If so, you could probably kiss your riches goodbye. You might be better off following Monty Brewster’s lead and organizing a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals. You could invite disadvantaged students to watch the game on a field trip. After all, one study has shown that “poor” readers with more knowledge about baseball outperformed “good” readers with relatively little knowledge about baseball.

All levity aside, there is little reason to believe that pumping more money into the funding formula will lead to improved results.

Let’s imagine that you do put the money in the formula to fill the “underfunding” gap. In the table below, I display how much Missouri schools would get from your great uncle’s generosity. In this graph, schools were sorted into deciles based on the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on the state’s math exam (districts were weighted for size). As you can see, you would be giving almost as much money to the highest-performing schools as you would to the lowest-performing schools.

If you would not invest your own money in this manner, why would you invest taxpayer money this way?

I have never denied that Missouri is underfunding the foundation formula; the state is. This does not mean that the formula is infallible. The formula is flawed and is in need of change. It is time to stop asking how much money we can spend on schools and start asking how we can spend our money more effectively, so that we can truly improve the lives of students.

Performance Decile (1=Low, 10=High)

Percent of Funds Received

Brewster’s Wasted Millions



$ 3,268,083.78



$ 3,408,597.58



$ 2,633,148.34



$ 3,562,383.35



$ 2,742,869.50



$ 3,107,064.16



$ 3,026,888.02



$ 3,545,048.73



$ 2,407,816.09



$ 2,298,100.43

March 26, 2014

Are Missouri Schools Underfunded?

Though there is overwhelming evidence (here, here, and here) that increasing spending on education will not lead to better results, the calls for more money seemingly never cease. Most recently, the Missouri Budget Project released a report claiming Missouri is underfunding education to the tune of $656 million. Let me say this boldly and clearly, the Missouri Budget Project is correct. That is, if you define “underfunding” as not fully funding the formula. If, however, you define “underfunding” as not providing enough money to provide a quality education, then they may be wrong. Let me explain.

Yesterday on the Show-Me Daily blog, my colleague Michael Rathbone pointed out that “there is no correlation between how much a school district is ‘underfunded’ and its actual performance.” In other words, districts that are more underfunded do just as well as districts that are nearly fully funded.

In the table below, I present all of the districts that scored a 100 percent and a 70 percent or below on the 2013 Missouri School Improvement Program Annual Performance Report (MSIP 5). Next to each district’s MSIP 5 score, I present the amount each district is underfunded per student as reported by the Missouri Budget Project. As you can see, in many cases, schools that are doing very well are relatively more “underfunded” than our lowest-performing schools.

So, are Missouri schools “underfunded”? It depends on what definition you use. They are underfunded when using the definition that the Missouri Budget Project uses, but they may not be if underfunded means “adequately” funded. Maybe we need to start rethinking how we fund education, not just how much.

Level of “Underfunding” in Missouri’s Best- and Worst-Performing Schools

MO Budget Blog Post

March 25, 2014

Does An Underfunded Formula Really Hurt Schools?

Does “underfunding” have a detrimental impact on Missouri school districts? The people at the Missouri Budget Project think so. According to their recent study examining Missouri school district funding, “The vast majority of school districts throughout Missouri have been significantly hurt by Missouri’s inability to fully fund the state’s education funding formula, which is the key to our kids receiving the world-class education they need to compete in today’s global economy.” However, Show-Me Institute Director of Education Policy James Shuls and I find that there is no correlation between how much a school district is “underfunded” and its actual performance.

I agree with Shuls when he says that, on principle, the foundation formula (which is the state’s method of determining how much of its annual appropriation to district aid goes to each school district) should be fully funded. The people at the Missouri Budget Project would have you believe that the more underfunded the school, the worse its performance will be. Shuls and I were skeptical that this was actually the case so we tested the Missouri Budget Project’s claim.

In our analysis, we used the Missouri Budget Project’s numbers for the amount each district was underfunded per student. In the past, I have raised issues with the Missouri’s Budget Project’s methodology (or lack thereof) in their work. However, for the sake of argument, Shuls and I decided to accept their results at face value. To measure a district’s performance, we used each district’s English and math MAP (Missouri Assessment Program) test scores and the percentage of students who scored proficient or advanced. We then ran the numbers through STATA to determine if any correlation existed between a school’s academic performance and their level of “underfundedness.” We found none (for more on our results, please see the comments section).

The underfunding of Missouri’s school districts “hurts” school districts if you define hurt as not getting money. If, however, you define hurt as having a negative impact on performance, these results indicate that is not the case. Even if these schools were fully funded, it would not guarantee that their performance would improve. A growing body of evidence suggests that increasing funding for schools will not necessarily lead to an improvement in educational outcomes. We believe in adequately funding our schools, but the state should first make sure that taxpayer money is spent wisely before asking taxpayers for even more.

March 21, 2014

Public Employee Pensions Are Great . . . Except When They Aren’t

When people hear the word “pension,” they often think “retirement security.” That is the idea of a public employee pension system, to ensure that public sector workers, such as teachers, have a safe, secure retirement. Missouri has three of these systems for teachers and they are great . . . except when they aren’t. To understand what I mean, look at the two figures below.

Kauffman Pension Report Figure 8 KCKauffman Pension Report Figure 9 STL

Missouri’s teacher pension systems are back-loaded. That is, teachers accrue much of their pension wealth toward the end of their careers. Unfortunately, very few teachers in Saint Louis and Kansas City ever reach this point. The figures above come from a recent report that the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation issued. Today, Dane Stangler and Aaron North, from the Kauffman Foundation, have an op-ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. They wrote:

Because most of the pension value accrues in the final years of an educator’s career, the typical new teacher in Kansas City or St. Louis does not benefit from the current system. Based on our research, we estimate the likelihood that a traditional public school teacher in St. Louis stays in the profession long enough to earn the maximum pension benefit to be about 4 percent. In other words, 96 percent of teachers in St. Louis will leave prior to reaching the full benefit and the percentage is comparable in Kansas City (approximately 3 percent).

That is just one of the problems with Missouri’s current teacher pension systems. As I have written before, the separate pension systems for Saint Louis and Kansas City put the urban districts at a disadvantage.  Stangler and North pointed out:

There is no reciprocity between the plans, so if a teacher begins her career in Springfield and leaves for a position in Kansas City or St. Louis, she will lose much of the pension wealth she had earned by either forgoing the employer contributions or having the value of her pension frozen at the time she quits.

Missouri’s teacher pensions are great for teachers who stay for 25 to 30 years in a single pension system. For teachers who work less or more than that time in a single pension system, the current system is not so great. Indeed, those teachers are subsidizing the retirement of others.

More importantly, these systems are not good for kids in Saint Louis and Kansas City because they act as a barrier to recruiting veteran teachers to the cities.

March 19, 2014

Education Needs More Money, STAT!

If you believe the popular media outlets, Missouri schools are in dire need of more cash. They claim that Missouri is under-funding education and that our state ranks low in comparisons of education spending. If we would just get with the program and give schools more cash, we will reap the rewards. It is true that our state lawmakers are not fully funding the foundation formula for public schools. On principle, they should fully fund the formula, but I’m not convinced that fully funding the formula would really lead to better results for students.

As I have written on the Show-Me Daily blog, “Since 1992, Missouri has seen nearly a 40 percent increase in per-pupil spending. Yet we have seen little in terms of increases in academic achievement.”

A new study by Andrew Coulson, of the Cato Institute, adds more evidence to support this claim. Using school funding data and student scores from the SAT, he compared the increase in spending with changes in SAT scores for the past 40 years. Before anyone complains that most Missourians don’t take the SAT, it is important to note that Coulson takes this into account and uses statistical procedures to account for the different types of students who have taken the SAT.

He demonstrates that education funding has increase precipitously, while SAT scores have remained relatively flat.

Whether looking at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), as I did in my previous post, or the SAT, it is clear that student achievement has practically flat-lined. Evidence from the past four decades suggests that money alone will not cure these ills.

CATO 2014 Education Funding

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