May 30, 2015

Senator Proposes Transparency for Public School Administrative Spending

State Sen. Joseph Keaveny (D-Saint Louis) has an idea: Require school districts to post administrative salaries to their websites. Watch below to hear why Sen. Keaveny believes public school finances should be more transparent.

May 29, 2015

Nobody Benefits from School Buildings Sitting Vacant

I joined Kelly Jackson and McGraw Milhaven on “The McGraw Show” this morning to discuss my new paper, “Vacant School Buildings: An Examination of Kansas City and Saint Louis.” Check out the discussion below.

After our on-air discussion, McGraw brought up the similarities between the district and the Saint Louis Land Reutilization Authority (LRA), or what I refer to in the segment as the Land Bank. He offered a good baseball analogy. It seems the LRA and the St. Louis Public School District are looking to hit home runs, but they need to focus on getting hits. The district regularly receives reasonable proposals from charter schools, which the district may not consider a home run, but they are certainly hits.

The district certainly needs to do something with these buildings, because nobody benefits from school buildings sitting vacant.

A Private School That’s Out of This World


From harnessing solar energy to launching the first privately funded rocket, SpaceX founder and PayPal cofounder Elon Musk is a doer.

When something is broken, the billionaire doesn’t sit back and wait for change. When he didn’t think that payment over the Internet worked optimally, he created PayPal. When he saw that the U.S. space program had stalled, he founded SpaceX. When he drove on the highway and saw too few electric cars, he started Tesla.

Recently, Musk turned his attention toward a new market—education. Dissatisfied with what he saw, the inventor did what comes naturally to him, he built something better—Ad Astra.

While Ad Astra (Latin for “to the stars”) sounds more like a cutting-edge technology startup than something to do with children, it is a private school that enrolled over a dozen students during the 2014-15 school year, including Musk’s five sons and children of other SpaceX employees.

Enrollment is only expected to grow to 20 students next fall, but the school’s mission to eliminate assembly-line learning is gaining momentum. Ad Astra functions without grade levels and focuses on the individual needs of students.

“Some people love math. Some people love music. . . . It makes more sense to cater the education to match their aptitudes and abilities,” he said in an interview for Chinese television.

This concept is not new. In fact, De La Salle Middle School, a private school in Saint Louis City, also organizes students based on ability, not age.

Additionally, four states have adopted Education Savings Account (ESA) programs to both give schools more autonomy and parents more flexibility to find the educational model that best fits their child’s needs. Families like the Vissers and Ashtons have benefited from Arizona’s ESA program. They have been able to develop a unique educational program for their children, and their stories are worth watching.

Unfortunately, burdensome state regulations and inflexible funding streams often prevent innovation in education. I hope seeing what is possible in the private sector through examples like Ad Astra will encourage state leaders to allow for more specialization and experimentation. Finding a school that best fits a child’s needs should not be limited to the uber-wealthy and smart.

Whether Musk is sending people on the 140 million mile journey to Mars or attempting to reform education, I wish him luck! One of these will prove to be a less difficult challenge, and I hope it’s the latter.

To watch Musk’s interview about Ad Astra, click here.


May 28, 2015

What to Do With Vacant School Buildings

Vacant School Buildings-1Public school systems are tasked with a tremendous responsibility. Not only do we expect them to educate our children, but we also expect them to be good stewards of the tax dollars we give them. To do this, a school system must make sure buses are running on time, nutritious meals are prepared for students, teachers deliver effective instruction, and students are supported in safe environments. These, of course, are just some of the obvious responsibilities of a school system. Urban school districts, such as Saint Louis and Kansas City, have a unique problem to deal with—vacant school buildings.

Like most urban school districts, Saint Louis and Kansas City have had declining enrollment for decades. They are also facing stiff competition from charter schools, which enroll 29 and 42 percent of all public school students in each respective city. This has left each district with more than 30 vacant school buildings. Vacant buildings are a problem for the district and the community. The cost of maintenance can be a drain on resources, diverting dollars away from the classroom. The buildings can also become an eyesore for the community, inviting vagrants and illegal activity.

In my latest paper, “Vacant School Buildings: An Examination of Kansas City and Saint Louis,” former Show-Me Institute intern Abigail Fallon and I explore this complex issue. Unlike most areas of education, little research exists on vacant school buildings, and few claim to know how to handle these properties. While there may not be a definitive answer on what should be done, we argue that school districts should be more intentional about divesting these buildings or putting them back to productive use. To that end, we offer some possible solutions, namely, that these buildings should be made available for lease or sold to charter schools.

The bottom line is that school districts must become more diligent in dealing with this problem.

May 26, 2015

From Standardized Tests to Standardized Character

Grit, not to be confused with the popular Southern breakfast dish, is a personality trait. Described by Webster’s Dictionary as “mental toughness and courage,” grit is a catchall term for personal virtues like perseverance and self-control.

Interestingly, a growing body of research is finding that traits like grit might be more important to children’s success in life than traditional academic knowledge.

The Washington Post recently reported:

[Angela] Duckworth, a former middle school teacher [and University of Pennsylvania researcher], is known for helping to popularize the notion that a student’s success is correlated to that student’s level of self-control and “grittiness,” or ability to keep working toward goals.

Her research has shown that grittier students are more likely to graduate from high school, score higher on SAT and ACT exams and be more physically fit. Grittier students also are less likely to get divorced, and they typically experience fewer career changes.

Dr. Thomas Hoerr, head of New City School in Saint Louis, is the author of Fostering Grit: How Do I Prepare My Students for the Real World? Hoerr’s instructional suggestions echo Duckworth’s findings. “Teachers should embrace teaching the whole child, and should consciously seek to foster the intrapersonal and interpersonal qualities which will make a difference in life—such as grit,” Hoerr said in an email.

Given the fact that grit is important, and it appears that teachers can have an effect on the “grittiness” of students, there is a movement around the country to link measures of students’ grit to the evaluation of schools and teachers.

Even though they both feel that fostering grittiness is important, neither Hoerr nor Duckworth are pushing for tying teacher evaluations to student grittiness.

Why? The biggest issue is measurement. Student self-assessments are commonly used to measure social and emotional factors, requiring students to self-evaluate their level of hopefulness about their future and asking questions like, “Did you laugh or smile a lot yesterday?” Duckworth has noted that grittier students, those who tend to have more self-awareness, are more likely to rate themselves lower. The very thing that makes them gritty drives them to hold themselves to a higher standard. If teacher or school evaluations are based on this measure, they will be inaccurate.

While grit is clearly important, the measures for determining teachers’ impact on it are not ready for prime time. It took decades to be able to link simple math and reading scores, and we’re still working out the bugs on those. It will be some time before new measures are available.


May 20, 2015

House Bill 42, You Can’t Please Everyone

Nearly everyone recognizes that the transfer program, which allows students to transfer from unaccredited school districts, is unsustainable. If the law is not changed, it will likely bankrupt the Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts. That is why the legislature has worked for the past two sessions to “fix” the transfer program. Last year’s attempted “fix” was vetoed by Gov. Nixon, primarily because it contained a small voucher component. This year’s bill, House Bill 42, does not contain a private school option. It does, however, expand charter schools. Immediately after the bill’s passage, education groups began urging the governor to veto the bill. Some have even gone as far as saying the bill makes matters worse.

So, why has fixing the transfer program become such a complicated mess? The problem is that we cannot agree on what problem needs fixing. Some want to end the transfer program altogether, some want to simply make the program sustainable, while others want to expand options for students. These three things are not all compatible, and they cannot all be accomplished. For example, Missouri’s commissioner of education wants to rein in tuition costs by instituting a cap. That would help make the program more sustainable.

That proposal is met with opposition from superintendents, such as David McGehee of Lee’s Summit School District. His argument is that it forces taxpayers in the receiving district to subsidize the education of the transfer students. (Never mind that the marginal cost of the additional students is extremely low, but I digress.)

McGehee and many other public school officials would like the transfer program to end all together. They simply do not believe that allowing students to leave their district is the right answer. Of course, others believe that students should not be trapped in underperforming schools.

Lawmakers have had to navigate this field and try to come up with a bill that satisfies all. Once again they have failed, not for lack of effort, but because it is impossible to satisfy everyone. The question then is whether, on balance, the bill does more good than bad. Those who oppose school choice would say, “No.” Those who support choice would say, “Yes.”

For more on the transfer program, I suggest you read my latest paper, “Interdistrict Choice for Students in Failing Schools: Burden or Boon?

May 18, 2015

Will HB 42 Hurt Alternative High Schools?

The Columbia Tribune reported that Columbia Public Schools Superintendent Peter Stiepleman and other superintendents across the state are telling Gov. Nixon to veto House Bill 42. If signed into law, the bill would allow students to transfer from an unaccredited school into another district or charter school at the expense of the sending district.

HB 42 also would create a new accreditation process, in which individual schools, not districts, are accredited, as is currently the procedure. This would allow students attending unaccredited schools to first transfer into an accredited school within their home district if there is space available. In short, school-level accreditation is going to affect more than just districts like Normandy and Riverview Gardens.

Stiepleman bases his concerns on the possible fate of a school in his district. Douglass High School is an alternative high school. Most alternative “schools” in Missouri are really programs carried out within a larger school, but Douglass is a stand-alone school. Under HB 42, the school would be accredited individually.

Stiepleman is worried that Douglass will not get a fair shake. As he put it, “Because of the population of fragile students at Douglass, the lack of Advanced Placement courses and other issues, it could become provisionally accredited. That designation is one step removed from being unaccredited, which could trigger student transfers.”

I recently reported on DeLaSalle Education Center, an alternative charter high school in Kansas City with similar fears. Like Douglass, DeLaSalle serves only at-risk students. As my video shows, students like senior K’ Von Williams are thriving at DeLaSalle.

Despite DeLaSalle’s low state standardized test scores, the charter school is delivering a quality service to both the community and students. If regulations are only based on test scores, they can miss the good things the school is doing.

Schools in Missouri should be held accountable for the quality of education that they provide for their students. But the mechanism by which those schools are held accountable has to be sensitive to different educational models (in the charter or traditional public sectors) and different populations of students across the state.

If HB 42 become law, DESE and the legislature will need to reevaluate the metrics Missouri uses to determine if a school is accredited or not. If they’re not careful, they could risk harming schools that are doing right by kids.


May 13, 2015

Can Normandy Be Saved?

Normandy (2)

They say those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. To better understand the seemingly intractable problems in the Normandy Schools Collaborative, I decided to head to the St. Louis Public Library newspaper archives to see what folks had written about Normandy in the past. I found this:

Hire more minority teachers, revamp the high school curriculum, improve discipline.

Sound familiar? These suggestions are quite similar to the comments Normandy’s most recent superintendent, Ty McNichols, made in 2013. In fact, what I found in the archives was written by former Normandy Superintendent Bruce A. Smith in a 35-page report about the status of the school district in 1988.

“Everything here is fixable,” McNichols had said. “It takes time. It can’t happen overnight. But it can be fixed.”

Nearly 30 years after Smith’s report, we seem to be no closer to improving the Normandy School District. The same old tactics will not lead to a better result.

A recent report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute points toward a more stark strategy—closing low-performing schools.

In School Closures and Student Achievement: An Analysis of Ohio’s Urban District and Charter Schools, researchers found that school closures have positive impacts on student achievement. Three years after schools closed, displaced students from urban districts, on average, gained 49 cumulative days of learning in reading and 34 cumulative days in math, relative to the comparison group.

The authors of the study also found that students who were displaced after a closure typically ended up in a higher-quality school. Fifty-nine percent of traditional public school students and 68 percent of charter school students transferred to higher-quality schools.

The evidence presented suggests that if policymakers are concerned about student achievement in low-performing schools, they should shut down those schools, instead of wasting more time, money, and patience trying to fix them. Resources then could be redirected toward starting new schools or expanding the capacity of existing higher-performing schools.

After decades of proposed “fixes,” are further attempts to improve Normandy Schools Collaborative misguided? Is closing down the district and allowing the students to be absorbed by neighboring districts the solution policymakers should really be thinking about?

These tough questions need answers. But one thing is certain, if we want to get serious about saving Normandy students, perhaps it’s time we stop trying to save Normandy schools.

May 9, 2015

No, Transparency Benefits the Academy

University_of_Missouri_-_Memorial_UnionMizzou Professor of Spanish Literature Michael Ugarte recently wrote an op-ed published in the Columbia Daily Tribune where he voiced his opposition to a bill that would require public universities to post course information online.

From Ugarte’s commentary:

[T]he reason I’m against SB 465 is that I don’t trust the motivations of those who are proposing it. It’s a bill with an agenda that goes far beyond a desire for transparency. It provides an opportunity for those determined to question, debunk, attack and diminish the pedagogical and research projects of university professors. I don’t think the effects will be positive; rather, we will have more of the same: animosity and lack of understanding.

As someone who has written on and testified in support of curriculum transparency for Missouri’s public universities, I can tell you that my motivation for supporting proposals like this comes from a conviction that public universities—and all public institutions—should be candid and open with the public about their affairs. Members of a public university should abide by the same transparency laws as everyone else who works in our public sector.

My motivation for supporting this bill doesn’t stem from a desire to “question, debunk, attack or diminish” the university, but I find it odd that a scholar would view someone questioning his work as a problem. Scholarship thrives on debate and challenges. As a student at Mizzou, you can bet I questioned my professors. They questioned, attacked, and debunked me right back. And I got a great education because of it.

I disagree with Professor Ugarte’s contention that an open academy will breed animosity and lack of understanding between it and the rest of society. On the contrary, I believe an open and honest discourse is the way you build trust and understanding. And there’s no reason why open and honest discourse can’t involve questions, debate, and, yes, sometimes even debunking.

May 8, 2015

Courts Should Avoid Setting Policy in Columbia Schools

Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom

The Columbia Public School District (CPS) and the union representing teachers in the district, the Columbia Missouri National Education Association (CMNEA), are embroiled in a labor dispute. The union wants a labor agreement with a pay increase for its members, while the district, in a tight place financially, wants to keep costs down. Unfortunately, because of recent court decisions, the courts might get involved here, substituting their judgment for that of the negotiators.

In 2012, the Missouri Supreme Court expanded its jurisdiction by reading a duty of “good faith” collective bargaining into the state constitution. The words “good faith” do not appear in the text of the constitution, but the supreme court has spoken and lower courts will follow the supreme court’s lead. As a result, courts throughout the state may now intervene in government labor relations if they determine this duty is not being honored.

The new “good faith” standard could affect the labor situation at Columbia Public Schools. The union and the school board met several times this year but did not come to a final agreement by the last scheduled bargaining session. Oddly enough, even though there are no more bargaining sessions scheduled this year, CMNEA is showing up to the school’s administrative building and “waiting” for a CPS bargaining team to arrive. In the Columbia Daily Tribune, one union official described the district’s refusal to continue negotiating after the last scheduled bargaining session as a failure to negotiate in good faith.

If the courts get involved here, it would be bad news for Columbia citizens. Columbia voters elected a school board to manage their public schools. Not a union. Not the courts. If a court steps in and forces a binding labor agreement that the duly elected school board didn’t agree to, the court would be setting school district policy against the will of the people.

May 4, 2015

Updated Reports: Missouri Fast Facts 2015

Fast Facts Banner

The Show-Me Institute is proud to present Missouri Fast Facts for 2015. These Fast Facts booklets cover a variety of topics and contain useful information that people can reference without having to scan through 100-page reports (that’s our job). Want to know by how much Missouri’s public pensions are underfunded? Just check the Pension Fast Facts for an answer. Want to know how Missouri highways are funded? Take a look at our Transportation Fast Facts.

These booklets are packed with information, but if you want to know more about any of the topics they cover, please visit our main website,

April 29, 2015

Paper Release—Interdistrict Choice for Students in Failing Schools: Burden or Boon?

Interdistrict-Choice-ShulsToday, the Show-Me Institute is releasing my latest paper, “Interdistrict Choice for Students in Failing Schools: Burden or Boon?” The abstract of the paper is below:

In June of 2013, the Missouri Supreme Court upheld a state law that allowed students in unaccredited school districts to transfer to nearby accredited districts. The student’s home district would be responsible for making tuition payments and providing transportation. Using data, firsthand accounts, and structured interviews with school district superintendents, this paper examines what happened in response to the transfer program. Specifically, it examines how the districts responded. In all, more than 2,000 students transferred from the unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts, roughly a quarter of the total student population. These students transferred to two dozen area school districts. Except in isolated cases, evidence suggests that these students were largely absorbed into receiving school districts without causing much disruption. For the unaccredited school districts, however, the transfer program had a profound impact on school finances.

I invite you to check out the full paper by clicking here.

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