March 26, 2015

Charter Schools: From B to A

Missouri has made significant gains in its use of charter schools as educational options. Recently, the state earned a B grade on a charter school report card, ranking 12th strongest out of 43 charter laws. By comparison, Missouri’s charter law is better overall than many other states, but the demand for charter schools still outweighs the supply.

charter school rankings

According to the guide, most schools reported waiting lists of nearly 300 students each. The table below shows how many students transferred out of both charter schools and public schools during the 2013-14 school year. The low percentage of students transferring out of charters is an indication that waiting lists remain populated.


Students Transferring Out of Public and Charter Schools
  Total Enrollment Transferred Out Percentage
Kansas City Public Schools 15,627 2,441 16%
St. Louis Public Schools 25,200 8,070 32%
Kansas City Charter Schools 10,159 587 6%
St. Louis Charter Schools 9,219 444 5%


The availability of seats is affected by the number of new charter schools that open. Currently, Missouri charter schools do not receive any money for school facilities. In order for Missouri to become a grade-A charter school state, shifting some public funds is just one helpful reform.

There are other areas where Missouri can show improvement. For example, the charter law could be expanded to allow charters to more easily open in accredited and provisionally accredited districts.

B’s may be “above average,” which is better than where Missouri usually finds itself, but the Show-Me State is capable of much more.

Is School Consolidation an Issue of Local Control?


Which Missouri school district spends the most money per pupil? If you guessed the Clayton School District, you’d be wrong. Clayton ranks sixth. Brentwood? Wrong again. Brentwood ranks 14th. At nearly $26,000 per pupil, the highest-spending district in the state is Gorin R-III; enrollment 19. If this shocks you, it shouldn’t. Eight of the 10 highest-spending districts per pupil are small districts with fewer than 100 students. In all, Missouri has 62 districts with fewer than 100 students.

Whereas larger districts often benefit from economies of scale—fixed administrative costs can be spread out over a large student body—small school districts do not. This naturally leads to higher costs per pupil; costs that many of these small districts could not bear were it not for additional state support for small school districts.

This is exactly the reason for House Bill 1292. Based, in part, on school consolidation in Arkansas, House Bill 1292 calls for the consolidation of school districts with an enrollment of less than 350 students. The Arkansas consolidation law came from a 2003-04 special session specifically targeted at fixing the state’s education funding system. Consolidation of small districts was seen as a way to save money on administrative costs.

The idea of school consolidation is sure to cause some arguments in the state capitol. Indeed, some believe it is an attack on local control of schools. However, when roughly 45 percent of funding comes from the state, as it does for the average district with fewer than 350 students, there may be a strong argument that the state has a considerable interest in the financial well-being of Missouri’s small school districts.


Rank District Enrollment Current Expenditure Per Average Daily Attendance
1 GORIN R-III 19 $25,931.71
2 CRAIG R-III 66 $21,812.23
3 MALTA BEND R-V 74 $19,355.81
4 BRECKENRIDGE R-I 72 $19,133.25
5 LESTERVILLE R-IV 250 $17,406.10
6 CLAYTON 2,587 $17,394.30
7 NORTH DAVIESS R-III 70 $16,764.86
8 CAINSVILLE R-I 88 $16,510.60
9 COWGILL R-VI 25 $16,483.03
10 BOSWORTH R-V 80 $16,135.35


March 19, 2015

Closing Loopholes in the Sunshine Law

government hallwaySometimes we like loopholes. Maybe you’ve used one to get out of a traffic ticket or to pay a little less tax. I remember hearing about a poorly thought out tax credit for electric vehicles that folks were using to pay for golf carts. Cute. A little scummy, but cute. But when the government uses a loophole to set policy behind closed doors, it’s not so cute.

There is a loophole in Missouri’s open records and meetings law that allows government entities, such as cities, fire districts, and school boards, to negotiate with unions and set public policy in meetings that are closed to the public. State law should open the collective bargaining process because the public pays for, and depends on, the policies set in these meetings.

Some government agencies have already opened collective bargaining meetings. In 2014, the Columbia Public Schools opened its collective bargaining meetings. It has held open meetings ever since. According to Christine King, president of the Columbia Public Schools Board of Education, the board opened the process because they felt open meetings advanced the public’s interest in full transparency and openness. Such openness in public affairs empowers citizens to hold their representatives in government accountable.

Since the Columbia Public Schools began holding its collective bargaining meetings in open sessions, the local paper, the Columbia Daily Tribune, has covered these meetings, parents, teachers, and anyone else is welcome to attend, and members of the public can view meeting minutes online and see that the parties negotiate in good faith with one another.

Open collective bargaining, as practiced by forward thinking local government entities like Columbia Public Schools and Monarch Fire Protection District, should be standard practice for Missouri state and local governments. One bill, SB 549, promises to do just that by closing the loophole in Missouri’s sunshine law that some public entities use to justify closing collective bargaining sessions. Reform that requires these meetings be held in the open would be a win for anyone who wants transparent, accountable government.

March 18, 2015

A Public School and a Private School Experience

Two hours—that was the amount of time it took me to get dressed, do my hair, get dressed again, decide which shoulder my backpack looked cooler on, and make it to first period on time. Concern about physical appearance is a shared concern for many high school students, but that’s not often the case for students who attend an all-girls or all-boys high school.

Across Missouri, there are about twenty private schools offering single-sex education. On average, these schools cost $12,320 per year. Aside from alleviating opposite gender social pressures, single sex education can offer many benefits for students in need of an alternative environment. Unfortunately, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds do not often have access.

hawthorn school

Because of school choice, adolescent girls from low-income backgrounds in Saint Louis now have access to the option for the first time. This fall, the state’s first all-girls public charter school – the Hawthorn Leadership School for Girls – will open its doors. An affiliate of the Young Women’s Leadership Network, which boasts 100 percent college acceptance rates, Hawthorne will focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Founder Mary Stillman fondly remembers her experience at Holten-Arms, an all-girls college prep school in Bethesda, Maryland. Stillman founded Hawthorn to provide low-income, urban students with the joy and rigorous academic focus associated with private same-sex education. According to the charter’s brochure, young girls should expect a sisterhood with traditions, celebrations, and strong relationships, as well as 1 to 2 hours of homework per night.

Though Hawthorn will be the first public school option of its kind, it won’t be the first public school to use a gender-specific educational approach. Woerner, an elementary school in St. Louis Public Schools, adopted a gender-sensitive model four years ago. According to a recent article in St. Louis Magazine, the school divided students by sex, giving boys more hands-on learning, while instilling more confidence in girls in math and science. The school has moved from provisional to full accreditation.

This isn’t to say that single-sex education is the right choice for every student, but the option, if it’s a better fit, should be available to every student. In the absence of a private school choice program, charter schools are one way to expand the option which previously was experienced only by students whose parents had the financial means to afford private school tuition.


March 14, 2015

Hashtagging Education in Missouri

Social media is a platform for discussion, and education policy is a popular topic. In a recent study, researchers looked at the Twitter hashtag, #commoncore. Over a six-month period, there were 25,000 to 35,000 tweets per month using the CCSS hashtag. Not surprisingly, researchers found that the discussion more often surrounded larger political issues rather than the standards themselves.

I looked at two popular Missouri education hashtags: #moedchat and #motransfers from March 9 to March 11. Using arguably less sophisticated methods, here are a few interesting things I found.

On just one of the days, most of the Twitter users participating in discussions were educators, administrators, or fell under an “other” category. At a glance, these were usually tech specialists or professional development representatives. Looking at only the #motransfers hashtag, there were seven Twitter users participating (including myself, Show-Me Distinguished Fellow James Shuls, DESE, and state house reporter Alex Stuckey).

twitter users march 11

Over a three-day period, several issues were discussed. The content was related to technology, teaching and learning, policy, and testing. Here is the breakdown:

tweets over 3 day period


The more popular hashtag is #moedchat, despite recent legislative actions concerning interdistrict choice. From my very short and quick dive into the data, I found that Missouri educators use Twitter to find out about professional development events, as well as connect with other educators to share ideas. The area that receives the most action is teaching and learning, but connecting and promoting is second.

I’m glad to see Missouri educators engaging in Twitter. Technology is a useful tool both in and out of the classroom, but if this small glimpse is any indication of social media participation among all educators in Missouri on a daily basis, there is room for improvement.

More teachers should participate in policy conversations—140 characters can go a long way.

March 12, 2015

St. Louis Public Schools Saving School Buildings for a Rainy Day

Yesterday, the Senate Education Committee conducted a hearing on House Bill 42. Brittany Wagner and I submitted testimony with suggestions for improving the bill. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend the hearing. For some reason, college professors are actually expected to regularly attend class. Go figure. Still, I was able to keep up on some of the deliberations via Twitter. One tweet in particular caught my attention.

Alex Stuckey, a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, tweeted:

This was in regards to a portion of the bill that requires districts to sell their vacant school buildings at fair-market value to charter schools. Here is what Brittany and I said in our testimony about the abandoned building provision:

While charter schools continue to grow in Missouri’s urban cities, HB 42 addresses the acquisition of real estate by charter schools from public schools. Overall, these schools are outperforming their traditional public school counterparts. Charter schools are doing well despite receiving less funds than traditional public schools. For example, they do not receive public funds for building expenses. Lack of access to affordable real estate often prohibits charter school expansion and the replication of quality charters. St. Louis and Kansas City Public Schools, however, both have their share of abandoned buildings. As a result, taxpayers are basically funding vacant buildings. Neglected facilities increase the risk of drug and crime incidents in urban communities. Allowing public charter schools to purchase taxpayer-owned real estate at fair-market value could increase educational opportunities while revitalizing blighted neighborhoods.

Now, here is what I find particularly interesting about the notion that St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) needs to hold on to buildings in case enrollment increases. First, enrollment has been steadily declining since the late 1990s. Since 1999, the district has lost half of its students. The district has had to close many school buildings in that time. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the district had 130 operating schools in 1991, 113 in 1999, and 77 in 2013.

Using the enrollment figures and the number of school buildings, I can compute the number of students per building. Of course, this is an average, and the actual enrollments vary. In 1991, the average enrollment per building was 333, in 1999 it was 396, and in 2013 it was 327. The enrollment today, per building, is less than it was at each of these times. In other words, SLPS buildings are no more crowded today than they ever have been.

slps enrollment

The largest enrollment increase in the past 20-plus years was 2,684 in 2013. This was the year after the Imagine Charter Schools closed their doors. Using the average building enrollment figures, this increase is roughly the enrollment of six to eight schools.

Yet, according to information gathered by Abby Fallon, a former Show-Me Institute intern, SLPS has 35 empty schools. The district currently has 25 buildings listed for sale.

It is always nice to save for a rainy day, but saving 30-plus buildings seems a bit much. SLPS must be expecting it to pour new students! In the unlikely event that SLPS had a large influx of students, it might make sense to have a couple of buildings on reserve. Still, this hardly justifies blocking the sale of two dozen other buildings that could be put to good use as a charter school.

Charter schools paying fair-market value seems like a pretty good deal to me. There is even a strong case that charters should have access to these buildings for free. As Doug Thaman of the Missouri Charter Public School Association said, “Why should a charter school use public dollars to buy a public building that’s already been paid for by the public? It’s almost like buying your home twice.”

March 9, 2015

Touching Testimony on Florida’s Education Savings Account Program

Over the past couple of years, I have written numerous times about Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). I have shown how ESA programs could save Missourians millions of dollars, and I have explained how ESA programs empower families by putting them in charge of their child’s education. I, however, could never explain the impact that an ESA program can have as well as Katie Swingle.

Swingle’s son, Gregory, has autism. In the video below, she explains what the ESA program means to her family. At the end of the video she says she wants the rest of the country to see her testimony. Help her out by liking and sharing this video.

March 6, 2015

What Teachers’ Unions Could Learn from Koufax and Drysdale

After the Los Angeles Dodgers won the 1965 World Series, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, the two great stars of the Dodgers’ pitching staff, jointly negotiated their contracts for the next season. In effect, Koufax and Drysdale formed a pact—a voluntary mini-union, if you will—hiring a Hollywood lawyer to present their demands. Koufax ended up getting $125,000 and Drysdale $110,000, which was quite a bit of money for a Major League player back in 1966.

Sandy_Koufax_1961-248x300Reviewing the literature on collective bargaining recently reminded me of this little bit of baseball history. The Missouri National Education Association (MNEA), one of Missouri’s teachers’ unions, published a pamphlet arguing that successful collective bargaining requires an “exclusive representative” who negotiates a contract on behalf of all employees, whether or not all employees want to join the union. I pointed out in a recent post that a teachers’ association need not represent all of the teachers in a school district in order to effectively represent its members. The Koufax-Drysdale holdout illustrates this point.

DrysdaleIt would have been absurd for Koufax and Drysdale to force the rest of the team into their mini-union. More importantly, forcing everyone to accept representation from the same negotiator would be wrong. If another member of the Dodgers’ pitching staff would have refused representation from Koufax and Drysdale, it would have been his choice to make.

MNEA could learn a thing or two from the Koufax-Drysdale holdout. Rather than forcing every teacher in a school district to accept representation from their organization and negotiating a contract on behalf of all teachers, MNEA could seek to represent teachers in a members-only capacity. Members-only representation is where a union only represents its own members and neither forces nonmembers to pay fees nor forces them to accept a contract the union negotiates. Members-only agreements allow workers the freedom to choose whether or not to be represented by a union. They also give unions the freedom to withhold services from nonmembers.

The Koufax-Drysdale holdout is just one example suggesting that there are alternative ways for groups of employees to bargain with their employers. These alternatives can be as effective as exclusive representation—and they can be done in a way that fosters individual freedom.

March 5, 2015

Homeschoolers Want to Play Too

Upon moving into the Lindbergh School District, I became a reader of the Concord Call. The community-based articles draw the neighborhood’s attention to local school district happenings—football games, board meetings, plays—where adults without school-age children are welcome.


It’s common for school districts to engage with and give back to taxpaying community members. Homeschool parents are taxpaying community members too, but the Missouri State High School Athletic Association (MSHSAA) excludes their children from participating in after-school activities. The MSHSAA requires students to attend a public school for “not less than 80 percent of an allowable course load.”

Legislation was introduced last month that would give homeschoolers an opportunity to participate in sports and after-school clubs.

Twelve-year-old Isaiah Craft testified in favor of the proposed legislation. Missourinet reported:

“I came today to testify because I like football, but I don’t do the best in a classroom because I have Tourette’s and OCD. So, I just find it easier and I enjoy it more at home.”

Isaiah’s father touched on how the current law limits scholarship opportunities for homeschooled athletes:

“. . . what is troubling is the way it is now, it’s just the wall is there, there’s no option, and it’s just kind of a dead end.”

Opposition to the legislation suggests that homeschool participation would take away from academic incentives set for student-athletes. The fear of sitting out is often enough to motivate a student to complete an assignment or perform well on an assessment. The argument that homeschoolers have lower educational standards, which would be unfair to public school athletes, is unfounded. In fact, a lack of high academic standards in traditional schools is one of the top reasons parents choose to homeschool their children.

Homeschool parents make the same investment in public education as public school parents. If schools use taxpayer dollars to fund non-educational activities, such as football, then homeschoolers should have access to these programs. Children like Isaiah should have the chance to play too.

March 3, 2015

Uber, Education, and Barriers to Entry


What do taxicab cartels and traditional education groups have in common? This is a question I contemplated on a car ride from my hotel to the Association for Education Finance and Policy’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., last week. Instead of taking the Metro, I decided to use Uber. Joe Miller has written a bunch on Show-Me Daily about Uber and Saint Louis’ and Kansas City’s taxicab commissions’ fight against the ridesharing service. On my short ride, I realized that many education groups are a lot like the taxicab cartels—they have attempted to place incredible barriers to entering the profession/industry.

My driver, Majid, was an English teacher in his home country. Majid moved to the United States for a better life and would like to begin teaching here. To do so, he has to obtain certification, which means he has to pass a licensure exam. Of course, to take the exam he has to pay for the exam. Majid recently took the necessary tests and passed the math exam but failed the language arts exam. He now has to pick up more Uber fares to pay for another test, which he may or may not pass.

Like the regulations that have blocked Uber from entering the market in many cities, licensure exams are a barrier to entry. Barriers to entry are not a problem if they perfectly block the people/problems that we don’t want in a profession. That is, if a barrier screened out every potentially bad teacher, it would be a good barrier. Unfortunately, licensure exams are very loosely related to teacher quality. This means many bad teachers pass the exam and become teachers, while individuals who may be great teachers fail the exam and do not enter the profession.

When we look at the success that Uber is having and how it is revolutionizing the industry, it is easy to see why we need to be wary of unnecessary regulations that have nothing to do with quality. Education would be wise to follow suit and remove unnecessary barriers to entry.

February 27, 2015

Study Reveals Gains in Four-Year Grads, Community College Doesn’t Fair as Well


Last month, President Obama unveiled a plan to make two-year community college “free and universal” for all. Show-Me Institute Distinguished Fellow James Shuls was quoted by St. Louis Public Radio, “To simply say we’re going to give away free community college sounds better than it actually is. You’re not pulling community college out of a hat, like a rabbit that a magician’s pulling out. Somebody’s paying for it.”

In Missouri, high school students already are able to receive subsidized community college. The A+ Scholarship Program incentivizes high school students to perform tutoring hours, to maintain a record of good citizenship, and to graduate with a GPA of 2.5 or above. In exchange, students attend community college “for free.” The program cost the state $30.4 million in fiscal 2014, but is community college worth the cost for Missouri taxpayers?

The National Student Clearing House Research Center looked at six-year completion rates for students across state lines in both two-year and four-year institutions. The research center’s findings differ from other studies in that students who transfer to another institution in or out of state are counted in the home state’s graduation rate. For Missouri, these new data boost the total completion rate for students who start at four-year institutions from 39.24 percent to 63.17 percent. This is significantly higher.

For students who start at community colleges and finish elsewhere, the increase in completion rate is less drastic. The data below show the six-year outcomes for students who start at two-year public institutions in Illinois, Kansas, and Missouri.

State Total Completion Rate Finished at Starting Institution Finished at Different 2-Year Finished at Different 4-Year Subsequent Completion at 4-Year Total 4-Year Completion Still Enrolled at 2-Year Not Enrolled Anywhere
Illinois 43.81 29.69 3.44 10.67 9.31 19.98 15.44 46.76
Missouri 39.87 24.24 5.73 9.90 7.92 17.82 14.82 45.31
Kansas 47.87 27.60 4.14 16.13 9.08 25.21 16.02 36.12

The completion rate for students who start at two-year institutions in Missouri is less than 40 percent. Only 17.82 percent of students starting at two-year community colleges complete four-year degrees. After a six-year period, a little over 45 percent of community college students were not enrolled anywhere.

Similar to other states, Missouri’s community colleges do not seem to be successful at retaining students or preparing them for four-year degree programs. Why should taxpayers spend more? Because as Shuls pointed out, “free community college sounds better than it actually is.”

February 25, 2015

School Visit Series: A Charter With a Second Chance

Dorothy Curry and Sue Jarvis had a dream—build a school that helps at-risk children reach their full potential. Their vision came to life in the form of Gordon Parks Elementary, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. While most urban charters serve low-income students, Jarvis and Curry wanted to serve the neediest of those children. In its early years, according to current Executive Director Steve Fleming, the majority of the school’s applicants were funneled through Operation Breakthrough, a charity where the founders volunteered.

The organization describes the children it serves:

Over 20% of the children are homeless or near homeless, living in battered women’s or homeless shelter or transitional living programs. Often they sleep on the sofas of friends or relatives, sometimes even living in cars, rundown hotels or abandoned buildings. Many of our children are in foster care or other placements due to abuse, neglect, or other family crises.

IMG_9725Serving one or two children with these types of hardships is difficult enough, but Gordon Parks was serving only children with these hardships. In 2013, the State Board of Education decided that Gordon Parks had to close down. One of the reasons Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Communications Coordinator Sarah Potter gave in an email to the Missouri Times was, “very low academic performance—in the bottom five percent of the state.”

The school fought back, taking DESE and the state board to court. The judge ruled in favor of Gordon Parks, “saving the school” from closing.

Although Gordon Parks has shown improvement in the past year, there are still challenges to serving the city’s neediest students. A Gordon Parks kindergarten teacher told Kansas City Public Media in January, “They need the structure, they need the individualized instruction, they need the love, they need the care. They need everything that we offer them and more.”

Gordon Parks was given a second chance, but there’s nothing preventing the state from penalizing schools that choose to serve a similar population of children. This is a shame, because schools like Gordon Parks provide a much-needed service.

Fleming said, “There’s some unique challenges that you have in the urban core, but we treat our kids like they’re our kids. We try to help them learn and grow and develop, and try to help them be good citizens. They’re our future.”

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