December 18, 2014

Students Need Choice, Not-Pie-in-the-Sky Solutions

got school choice

When the chairman of the Black Leadership Roundtable announced his plan for ensuring Saint Louis-area students have access to a quality education—a city-county school district—he was presenting an idea that has been recycled for decades. In his 1985 book, A Semblance of Justice, Saint Louis University sociology professor Daniel Monti wrote, “A review of St. Louis County Board of Education’s deliberations between the 1950s and 1970s reveals three overriding concerns among professional educators and the lay leadership: the merger of all county districts with the city district, the equalization of school tax rates in the area, and the consolidation of districts within St. Louis County.” The idea may have some merit. Unfortunately, it is simply too pie in the sky to ever make a difference for students who need better educational options today.

It is highly unlikely that citizens in high-achieving, wealthy school districts such as Clayton would agree to a merger with the low-performing, poor school district of Riverview Gardens. Yet, even if all the area districts merged, it would not dissolve the pockets of concentrated poverty. Though it’s true that school district boundaries would be erased, the boundary lines around individual school buildings simply would become starker; essentially transferring the problem of housing decisions based on district performance to housing decisions based on school performance.

No, simply consolidating school districts will not solve St. Louis’ educational problems. The editorial board of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch realizes as much. When they called for a city-county school district in April 2014, they wrote that their ideal school district would utilize “some form of open enrollment.” The editorial board implicitly recognized that school choice must be a part of any plan to improve educational outcomes for disadvantaged students in the Saint Louis area.

Though the city-county school district will likely never happen, there are ways in which we can expand options for students. For starters, it should be easier for students in low-performing schools to take the dollars allotted for their education to the school of their choice. Missouri has had a successful, voluntary inter-district choice program between the St. Louis Public Schools and county school districts since 1981. With some modifications, the law that allowed Normandy and Riverview Gardens students to transfer to higher-performing schools could be just as sustainable. Moreover, the law could be expanded to allow all students the opportunity to seek the best education possible.

Along those lines, Missouri should allow students to enroll in charter schools across district boundaries. There are many well-regarded charter schools in Saint Louis that would welcome students from Normandy, Riverview Gardens, or other school districts. Moreover, there are many charter schools that would like to open in struggling school districts. They are inhibited from doing so, however, because they can only enroll students from within district boundaries.

Finally, Missouri should create a tax-credit scholarship program to enable students to attend a private school of their choice. Fourteen states now have a tax-credit scholarship program. These programs expand opportunities for students whose needs are not being met, especially students who are disadvantaged or have special needs. What is more, tax-credit scholarships save states money.

We do not need to hold out hope for large-scale changes to area school district boundaries when these solutions are at our fingertips. If Saint Louis truly wants to dissolve the poverty cycle in urban communities, then it should support realistic solutions like charter school expansion, voluntary open enrollment, and a tax-credit scholarship program.

December 17, 2014

ESEA: What Should Reauthorization Look Like?

Although the Show-Me Institute typically focuses on state-level education policy issues, discussions regarding the controversial Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) have been popping up lately.


The ESEA was created in 1965 as a part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” The statute funds state primary and secondary education. Currently, Missouri school districts receive about 10 percent of revenue from the federal government.

The ESEA has been reauthorized every five years, and each presidential administration has left its mark on the original act. Most recently, it was reauthorized during the Bush Administration as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Because Congress has not reauthorized the act during Obama’s presidency, there is concern the administration might be using the act as leverage to incite favored reforms.

The Department of Education has instituted “waivers” from NCLB. The adoption of the Common Core State Standards and tying teacher evaluations to student data are policies states must adopt to receive a waiver. Waivers have faced criticism, as, under similar conditions, some states have received them while others have not. Last month, Oklahoma was given its waiver back.

The question is: Assuming states continue to receive federal monies (and the act will be reauthorized), what should the ESEA’s reauthorization look like?

In an op-ed in the Washington Times, Heritage Foundation Fellow Lindsey Burke made the following recommendations:

  • Eliminate any federal mandates concerning NCLB;
  • Reduce the number of programs associated with NCLB; and
  • Allow states more portability with Title 1, the component of NCLB that allows students in failing schools the option of transferring to a higher-quality public school.

Burke’s recommendations don’t end federal intrusion into state education altogether, but this does seem to be a compromise between keeping the ESEA and giving power back to the states.

Should the federal government stay out of education completely, including federal funding? What do you think of Burke’s recommendations?

December 11, 2014

What Is the Right Level of Regulation in Public Education?

Back in September the Show-Me Institute released my paper, “Decentralization Through Centralization,” in which I examined the development of the nation’s first all-charter school district in New Orleans. Though a mouthful, the title was my way of highlighting the tension that exists in the decentralized New Orleans system, which has been created with greater centralized control. In the paper, my co-authors and I highlight several potential pitfalls that might occur because of the power vested in a centralized entity. This week, Reason released a video highlighting another potential pitfall of the New Orleans Recovery School District model—regulatory creep.

As Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, notes in the video:

People like autonomy in the abstract, but they get real nervous about it. If any one of a hundred or a thousand schools does something goofy, there’s always a natural temptation to say, “Well, we’re for autonomy, but let’s have a rule that doesn’t let you do X.”

Over time, Hess suggests that these regulations mount. If not checked, the decentralized charter market could become a bureaucratic morass. So what is the right level of regulation? And is it possible for a decentralized school system to resist what Neerav Kingsland, former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans, calls “death by a thousand regulatory cuts”?

If you have seven minutes, you should check out the video.

December 10, 2014

When Public Schools Compete


We Choose SLPS is the slogan for the Saint Louis Public Schools (SLPS) ad campaign, in which radio commercials, newspaper ads, and billboards highlight the strengths of the once-unaccredited school district. With the growing trend of open enrollment programs and charter schools around the country, it has become necessary for traditional public schools such as SLPS to compete for students.

The following is an excerpt from an article describing one Nashville principal’s experience canvassing for students:

It’s awkward. Someone peers out at her through the window. White looks away, pretending not to notice. After an uncomfortable few seconds, the door finally cracks open. White seizes her chance:

“My name is LaTonya White. I’m the principal at Rosebank Elementary School. How are you doing?” she asks, glancing at the clipboard in her hands. On it: a list of families in the area with soon-to-be kindergartners. “Yes, you should have a child ready to come to school soon.”

Canvassing for potential students—and honing this kind of front-porch pitch—are standard for charter schools. But for traditional public school leaders like White, it’s unfamiliar territory.

Competing for students may be unfamiliar territory for public schools, but for students it makes all the difference. When students have educational options other than the public school that corresponds to their zip code, public schools are held accountable for their performance.

This year, SLPS made improvements on their annual state report, an 18.6 percentage point gain, increasing attendance, graduation rate, and college and career readiness. As charter schools expand throughout the state and other choice options become available, I hope to see more public schools exhibiting the same behaviors as SLPS, turning schools into places students choose to be, instead of places they are obligated to attend.

November 19, 2014

Education: A Way Out

For some students, education is a “way out,” but in places with few educational options, the way out is often a public school that does not meet the needs of its students.

Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., have taken steps to ensure students have more choice in education. New Orleans parents Gerald and Shermane Prosper were able to take advantage of the Louisiana Scholarship program, which allows their son to attend a private school. The voucher program, enacted in 2008, serves low-income students in low-performing schools and provides educational access to more than one-third of students in the state. Show-Me Institute Fellow James Shuls has shown how this type of scholarship program could potentially save Missourians millions of taxpayer dollars.

Watch the video to learn how the Prosper family views education as a pathway to success.

November 17, 2014

Ideas for Kansas City Schools: Pay Teachers More Sooner

Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) is seeking input from parents, school staff, and the community about how it might regain and sustain full accreditation and retain and attract students. To that end, it is forming a School Improvement Advisory Committee (SIAC) and has been seeking applicants to serve in that capacity. Previously, we shared some ideas for strengthening administration and staff. Today, we’d like to suggest at least one change to Kansas City’s teacher pay schedule: pay teachers more sooner.

As it stands, the pay schedule for Kansas City teachers starts low and provides only modest increases in the initial years. Largest pay increases come at the end of a career, in a manner to maximize pension value. As my colleague James Shuls has argued in previous posts, this is a disincentive for new and effective teachers to stay on. Dane Stangler and Aaron North of the Kauffman Foundation wrote in a March 2014 op-ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

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).

As a result, new teachers are less likely to stay on. According to the Show-Me Institute’s Michael Podgursky, “After eight years, roughly 70 percent of teachers remain on the job. The eight-year survival rates in STL and KC are far lower, ranging from 10 percent to 30 percent.”

Podgursky’s paper urges more transparency and,

Given the relatively small share of new teachers in Kansas City or Saint Louis who can expect to complete an entire career in either district, as a strategic recruiting tool it makes more sense to raise front-end salaries, 

rather than “generous end-of-career retirement benefits.”

Certainly, there are many reasons why teachers in Kansas City and Saint Louis are much more likely to leave, and creating a more fair pension system will not solve all of them. But one thing we can do in Kansas City is to let new teachers know they are valued early on in their careers and that we want them to stay on.

November 15, 2014

Why a Teaching Degree Is Easy as 1-2-3

Having experienced firsthand the ease of a teaching program, I wasn’t surprised by the results of a recent National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) study, which examined the demands of teacher training programs. Like many pre-service teachers, I knew that if I was to become an effective teacher, it wouldn’t be due to the rigors of my program. Here is an example of an assignment I completed during graduate school.

The assignment was to explain some differentiated instruction techniques I planned to use in the classroom—by drawing a cartoon. This is what I turned in:

mat blog picture

Clearly, I’m not an artist, but still, this is absolute nonsense—I received minimal points off. This is the kind of assignment the NCTQ would refer to as criterion-deficient. Criterion-deficient assignments are broad in scope and may be difficult for instructors to give high-level feedback. Unlike assignments that allow instructors to measure mastery of knowledge or skills, criterion-deficient assignments are subjective. How could an instructor give high-level feedback to the above garbage?

The NCTQ found that on average 71 percent of grades in teacher preparation courses rely heavily on criterion-deficient assignments. The study also found there is a correlation between the percentage of criterion-deficient assignments and high grades—teacher candidates are 50 percent more likely to receive honors at graduation than candidates with other majors.

I hope these embarrassing findings are a sign to universities that they should stop focusing on reflective assignments that are subjective in nature and, instead, build an environment of rigor that will ultimately draw more quality students to the teaching profession.

November 14, 2014

Vail Lifted from Teacher Collective Bargaining Negotiations in Colorado

Colorado voters said YES to Proposition 104 last week at a ratio of 7 to 3. The ballot initiative will open collective bargaining negotiations between teachers’ unions and school boards to the public. Supporters say the new law will bring transparency to local government, allowing parents and taxpayers a look into what teachers’ unions ask for during negotiations.

Should Missouri pursue similar reform?

Collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) are subject to Missouri’s Sunshine Law. Many existing agreements can be viewed on Show-Me Sunshine. Here are just a few of the hundreds of items teachers and school boards have bargained for:

  • Salary
  • Benefits
  • Sick days
  • Student behavior
  • Parent communication
  • Amount of time a parent may spend in the classroom
  • Paid release days for union activity
  • Hiring policies

Parents may not be aware of the restrictiveness of some of these contracts. A study by USC Associate Professor Katharine Strunk found that in school districts with more union power school boards had less flexibility in decision making. This is unnerving, as school board members are elected by citizens; teachers’ unions are not.

Perhaps if Missouri’s Sunshine Law was expanded to include collective negotiations, school boards would be less likely to give in to cumbersome demands in the presence of taxpayers and parents. In the absence of a collaborative policy, this would bring parents and taxpayers a step closer to having a place at the bargaining table.

October 30, 2014

Our Take on Amendment 3

There’s been a lot of talk about Amendment 3, which limits teacher contracts to three years and ties evaluations to personnel decisions. Some arguments against Amendment 3 are rational, evidence-based, and well thought out; others are not. In this post, we present our analysis of several arguments that have been made regarding Amendment 3. We conclude with some final thoughts on the matter.

(1) Amendment 3 will mandate more standardized tests.

Analysis: False.

Here’s what the ballot language says:

The majority of such evaluation system shall be based upon quantifiable student performance data as measured by objective criteria.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch claims:

. . . the worst thing about Amendment 3 is that it imposes an untested experiment on all local school districts in the state, requiring them to devise a new standardized test for students that becomes the primary evaluation tool for teachers. Don’t our children take enough standardized tests these days?

This is a tremendous overstatement. With the state tests that students already take and the multitude of internal assessments that districts already administer, there is no need for additional tests under this amendment. Moreover, there are other types of performance data, such as districtwide common assessments, which could fit within the Amendment 3 language.

(2) Amendment 3 takes away local control.

Analysis: Both true and false.

If we were moving from a neutral system to an Amendment 3 system, it would be a loss of local control. Of course, we are not moving from a neutral system. Current Missouri tenure laws grant teachers a permanent contract after five years within the same school district and prescribe the exact steps that districts must undertake to remove a tenured teacher. This is a clear loss of local control. Amendment 3 would remove these centrally imposed mandates and would also remove the disastrous “Last in, first out” provision.

Under an Amendment 3 system, contracts would be capped at three years. Amendment 3 would also mandate that districts make staffing decisions based on teacher evaluations. A majority of such evaluations must be based on student performance data. Aside from this provision, districts would largely get to shape their evaluations.

(3) If there is a problem with the new system, Amendment 3 would make it difficult to change policies in the future.

Analysis: True.

How much of a teacher’s evaluation is tied to quantitative data should not be in the state constitution. Ideally, policies such as this would be determined as close to home as possible. That is, authority to determine contract length and evaluation practices should be devolved to the local school district or set in state regulations that could be changed when necessary. Even statutory changes would be preferable to a constitutional change.

Final thoughts:

Proponents argue that Amendment 3 will lead to better teacher evaluations and more recognition for great teachers. Ultimately, they hope this will create an improved teacher workforce. There is just one fundamental problem with that argument—when it comes to teacher quality, we have what is known as a principal-agent problem. That is, we as citizens (the principal) want great teachers in our schools and we hire school administrators (the agent) to make sure this happens. If the agent does not do his or her job, there is little we can do about it. Ultimately, we are dependent upon the school administrator for hiring the right people, evaluating them effectively, and retaining the most effective teachers. If a school administrator lacks the will to remove low-performing teachers, there is little that parents can do about it. Amendment 3 does not change our fundamental principal-agent problem. It may remove tenure restrictions, but if school administrators lack the will, then nothing will change.

The only way to change this dynamic is through greater school choice. With school choice, a parent does not have to depend on an administrator to remove an ineffective teacher. The parent can simply choose to go somewhere else. This places pressure on school administrators to take a more active role in managing the teacher workforce. School choice is the answer to our principal-agent problem. School choice is the answer for improving the overall quality of the teacher workforce.

James Shuls contributed to this post.

October 27, 2014

What Uber and School Choice Have in Common: In Missouri


Late last month, founding president and chief operating officer of the Children’s Scholarship Fund James Courtovich wrote an op-ed in the Wall-Street Journal titled “What Uber and School Choice Have in Common.” He said:

When we began the project [Children’s Scholarship Fund] in 1998, teachers, union leaders and their political benefactors said choice was a threat, much as cabdrivers say now. But as [Ted] Forstmann used to say, “Monopolies invariably produce bad products at high prices.” The 1.3 million parents who applied for the scholarships illustrated the tremendous demand for alternatives.

I reread this article after my trip to Washington, D.C., where I took my first Uber and Lyft rides. Reflecting on my positive experience with the taxicab alternatives, i.e., five-dollar fare, I realized—I’m not used to having choice.

In the Show-Me State, it is the status quo to be educated within your zip code. It is also the status quo to pay $40 for a 10-mile cab ride. Saint Louis and Kansas City are two of the largest metropolitan areas to prevent Uber and Lyft from operating their ridesharing services; and there are no private school choice programs in the state. Is Missouri choice-resistant?

As Courtovich suggested, there’s a parallel between the St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission (MTC) and Missouri’s school choice critics. The MTC claims to protect rider safety, maintaining the balance between cab supply and demand. School choice opponents claim voucher programs will “destabilize” public education, that choice and competition have no place in education.

The MTC and school choice critics are utterly afraid of change, but keeping the status quo has consequences. Children are trapped in low-performing schools, and cab fare is high. Missouri should follow the lead of states that have embraced choice in any context, because as Uber’s tagline suggests, “Choice is a beautiful thing.”



October 23, 2014

An Idea for Kansas City Schools: Give Principals Power

Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) is seeking input from parents, school staff, and the community about how it might regain and sustain full accreditation and retain and attract students. To that end, it is forming a School Improvement Advisory Committee (SIAC) and has been seeking applicants to serve in that capacity. We have a few ideas we’d like to share about strengthening administration and staff, rewarding teachers, and empowering parents.

First, it is noteworthy that the stated purpose of the advisory committee is seemingly small ball. Their email soliciting participation asks only,

What’s it going to take for Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) to regain full accreditation? What’s it going to take for your school to regain/sustain full accreditation? How can we retain and attract students?

In other words, “What do we have to do to provide the minimal state-required level of service?” We’re also suspect that they are looking toward parents and the community for ideas when there is an entire industry of specialists who have researched, written, and talked about what to do to improve schools. We at the Show-Me Institute have our own suggestions, and they aim at rebuilding world-class education in Kansas City. All our ideas have a common theme: Move power away from centralized school districts and toward students and parents.

For his 2003 book Making Schools Work, UCLA Professor and Author William G. Ouchi studied more than 200 schools in six cities and found that a school’s educational success may be most directly affected by how it is managed. The way to increase successful management, he argues, is to give schools more control over their own budget.

While schools may boast large budgets, Ouchi’s research uncovered that very little of it is controlled by the principal or the school itself. In one anecdote, he relates that a Los Angeles principal said her school had a budget of $21 million but added, “It doesn’t really matter because I only control $32,000.” Ouchi’s further research indicated that in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago the local schools only controlled 6.1 percent, 6.7 percent, and 19.1 percent of the budget, respectively.

In school districts that have seen tremendous improvements in their urban school performances, such as Seattle, Houston, and Edmonton, Canada, the percentage of the budget controlled by the local schools was 91.7, 79.3, and 58.6, respectively. This should be no surprise. Administrators, teachers, and parents at the school are best able to identify and address the specific needs of their students.

Here in Kansas City, better school management means moving the power of the purse away from the top-down centralized control at 12th and McGee streets and out to the principals at Paseo, Lincoln Prep, and elsewhere. Ouchi offers this warning to parents:

Control goes with the money. If your superintendent smiles, invites your group into his office, and tells you that he agrees with you and that he’s going to roll out a new school-based decision-making program that includes parent involvement—smile sweetly and ask him who will control the school’s budget. Don’t let him off the hook. Don’t let him think that you can be so easily fooled.

Remember, the author was chief of staff to Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. He has academic credentials, but he has weathered political fights as well. And the Kansas City district appears to be doing exactly what he describes: They smile, invite people to discuss the district, but surrender none of the control that is necessary for success.

October 22, 2014

ESAs Empower Families in Arizona

All students have unique educational needs, which is why Salima’s parents chose to participate in Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) program. The ESA is an education savings account that allows parents to use a portion of their public school’s funding and deposit it into an account. The account can be used to pay for private school tuition, online education, private tutoring, or future expenses like college. This makes a world of difference to kids like Salima, who is one of 400,000 people living with Down syndrome in the United States.

This inspiring story is just one example of how school choice can transform lives. Because Salima’s parents were empowered through Arizona’s school choice program, their daughter’s needs finally are being met.

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