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.”

February 24, 2015

Ideas for Kansas City Schools: Focus on Teachers


Last night the Show-Me Institute partnered with the Kansas City Federalist Society for a panel discussion on the Future of Education in Kansas City. Panelists included James Shuls of the Show-Me Institute, Doug Thaman of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, Amy Hartsfield of the Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) Board of Directors, Andrea Flinders of the American Federation of Teachers, and John Murphy of the Missouri Catholic Conference. The event was well attended, and the discussion lasted two hours; I think everyone would agree that it was educational.

One topic of discussion was pay for teachers. Flinders asserted that Kansas City teachers are paid lower than the state average. She is most likely correct, and there is something we can do to fix it. In previous posts we suggested reforming teacher pay schedules to increase the incentive for teachers to stay on.

But the district actually can pay teachers more if it cuts back on hiring non-teacher personnel. According to my colleague Brittany Wagner,

Over the past 60 years, schools have increased non-teaching personnel positions by 702 percent. [A report] also found the U.S. spends more than double what Korea, Mexico, Finland, Portugal, Ireland, Luxembourg, Austria, and Spain spend on non-teaching staff salaries and benefits.

Recall that upon arriving Superintendent John Covington asserted that the district was too big, and in 2010 KCPS closed 30 buildings and eliminated 1,247 full-time equivalent positions. Doing so freed up a great deal of money. According to Wagner,

One study showed that if non-teaching personnel grew at the same rate as the student population, American public schools would have an additional $24.3 billion annually.

This impacts pensions as well, which is far greater than the immediate cost of this educational bloat on salaries. Show-Me Researcher Michael Rathbone writes,

Non-teaching personnel also accrue pension benefits through the Public Education Employee Retirement System of Missouri (PEERS). According to the PEERS annual report, “PEERS is a mandatory cost-sharing multiple employer retirement system for all public school district employees (except the school districts of St. Louis and Kansas City), employees of the Missouri Association of School Administrators, and community college employees (except St. Louis Community College).” Members of the plan and their employers both contribute to the pension.

Over the last five years, the unfunded liabilities (liabilities minus assets) of this plan have increased by more than $64 million. Pension benefits like PEERS benefits are guaranteed and must be paid out. If PEERS can’t make those payments, taxpayers (i.e., you) will have to.

By spending too much on non-teacher personnel, KCPS is draining resources from both funds to pay teachers in the short term and teacher pension funds in the long term. Cutting back on non-teacher staff—or perhaps just restricting growth—would allow school districts to better meet their financial responsibilities to teachers and to demonstrate a real commitment to the children in the classroom.

February 22, 2015

Are Virtual Charter Schools Right for Missouri?

photo 3In 1999, 11 charter schools opened in Saint Louis and Kansas City. That same year, the Disney Channel released the millennial cult-classic Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century. “Grounded” on earth, Zenon communicates with her interstellar best friend with a handheld video device (what foresight!). While the technology in 2015 mirrors what Disney imagined, charter education in Missouri is still “so ’90s.”

This may be because virtual charter schools are not yet allowed to operate in the Show-Me State. Legislation has been introduced this session that attempts to expand virtual charter education opportunities. Online charters already exist in more than 30 states.

Virtual charter schools could provide an alternative for public school students and homeschool families outside of Saint Louis and Kansas City. The creation of a virtual school network also could create new employment opportunities for educators.

Traditional brick and mortar education may work for most students, but for children who require an alternate learning environment, 21st-century charter schools may be the answer.


February 20, 2015

Shock and Audit: St. Joseph School District Out Tens of Millions Because of Staff “Stipends”

Missouri has seen its share of boondoggles. To name a few in recent years, Moberly was taken in on a $39 million sucralose scam that downgraded the city’s credit rating, left bondholders hanging, and resulted in jail time for one of the masterminds. In Kansas City, officials had to settle with a developer for millions over the failed Citadel redevelopment project, which saw criminal prosecutions of its own.

Now enters the St. Joseph School District. As reported by the St. Joseph News-Press:

“We went back about eight years and found there was over $25 million worth of stipends either not approved, unauthorized or improper. That $25 million worth of stipends is what we found to be problematic,” [State Auditor Tom Schweich] told the crowd inside the Oak Grove Elementary School commons area.

Since there was not full documentation going back further than 2001, Mr. Schweich added, that number could be in excess of $40 million paid out in stipends over that period.

“That is a startling amount of money,” he said, followed by a collective groan from the audience.

“Startling” is an understatement. The questionable stipends account for, on average, over $3 million each of the last eight years that could have gone toward substantive and proper investments in the education of St. Joseph’s children. Instead, according to the News-Press, it appears the money went to a wide array of cronyistic efforts,

including $45 for a Sam’s Club membership for [Superintendent Dr. Fred] Czerwonka, $1,500 for a painting for [Chief Operating Officer Rick] Hartigan’s office and $7,650 in free Internet service for 16 individuals, including an individual the district claimed they did not know.

In the auditor’s words, the stipends operated much like a “slush fund.” Throw in $3.4 million in overpayments from the state to the district because of inaccurate reporting and a swath of closed district meetings that should have been open to the public, and you have the makings of a full-blown scandal in northwest Missouri. It remains to be seen whether criminal action will be taken in the matter, but that seems to be very much on the table at this point.

Frequent readers of this blog know about our positions on transparency (for) and cronyism (against), so I won’t belabor those policy prescriptions in light of the district’s failures. The sheer magnitude of the district’s blackbox behavior is a better argument for vigilance and reform of state and local government than my words alone could offer.

It also goes without saying (though I’ll say it anyway) that “per pupil spending” remains a meaningless statistic, a fact emphasized here. How much you spend “on” a student doesn’t matter if the line items are $1,500 on administrators’ art, rather than $1,500 on the art department.

And yes, there will be many important story lines that will be worth talking about as the district’s actions are fully vetted, but one story line that has to remain front and center is how shameful it is that it took more than a decade for these problems to fully come to light—and the risk that St. Joseph’s scandal is just the canary in the coal mine statewide. That this school district was insulated so long from critical oversight makes me wonder whether similar behaviors might be taking place in one of the other 519 districts (!) in the state . . . and we simply don’t know it yet.

More to the point: If Missouri’s school districts are going to tell the state they have funding problems, then it’s fair for the state and the taxpayers to take a fresh look at how each district spends, or misspends, the state’s tax dollars. That is especially true in light of St. Joseph’s present troubles.

Education funding should be for the children, not for the districts, and it’s time district books were cracked open and thoroughly reviewed. For the state to deliver a quality education for our kids, it needs to hold every district accountable not only to stop problems like this from happening again, but also to ensure that they’re still not happening someplace else.

The Future of Education in Kansas City


On Monday, I’ll be participating in a panel discussion on the Future of Education in Kansas City. This event is co-sponsored by the Federalist Society and the Show-Me Institute. Check out the details below and then come check out the event on Monday night.

Should your ZIP code determine your educational choices? Do charter schools improve academic outcomes? What do local public schools need to succeed? Should tax credit scholarships be used to help students attend private schools? Should residents in struggling public schools get to transfer to neighboring districts?

These topics and more will be explored as our panelists debate the future of education in and around Kansas City, Mo.

The panel will feature the following influencers in the local education landscape:

  • James Shuls, Ph.D., distinguished fellow, Show-Me Institute, and Assistant Professor at University of Missouri–St. Louis
  • Dr. Amy Hartsfield, member-at-large, School Board, Kansas City Public Schools
  • Andrea Flinders, president, Kansas City Federation of Teachers, Local 691
  • Douglas Thaman, Ed.D., executive director, Missouri Charter Public School Association
  • John Murphy, public policy committee chair of the Missouri Catholic Conference

Admission is FREE, but please register so we can ensure there is enough seating. The event is scheduled from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 23, 2015, at the Kansas City Club, 918 Baltimore Ave., Kansas City, MO 64105.

Teachers’ Union Gets Collective Bargaining Wrong

IMG_5945_Last week someone forwarded me this pamphlet from the Missouri National Education Association (MNEA) on collective bargaining for teachers. It’s a well-put-together brochure that explains the MNEA’s position on a pretty complicated issue. While I applaud the union for producing a primer on an area of public policy I think most people do not know a whole lot about, I take issue with a few of the points they make.

1. The MNEA’s pamphlet argues that the only way for teachers to successfully achieve an enforceable labor agreement is when one union acts as the exclusive representative of all the teachers subject to the labor agreement. This requirement is nowhere to be found in the constitution. It was not mentioned by the Missouri Supreme Court when it created collective bargaining rights for teachers in 2007. And the Missouri Supreme Court failed to mention the necessity of exclusive representation in any further decisions.

Furthermore, there are school districts in Missouri, such as Hillsboro and Warren (see below), where the school district has a labor agreement with multiple teachers’ unions. The fact that both the Missouri State Teachers Association and the MNEA already represent teachers in multiple multi-party labor agreements proves that a single exclusive representative is unnecessary.

2. The MNEA’s pamphlet suggests that collective bargaining through an exclusive representative is a democratic process that results in fair representation for all teachers subject to the labor agreement. Ordinarily, once a government union obtains the privilege of acting as the exclusive representative for employees, it never has to run for re-election. There’s hardly anything democratic about a representative winning a lifetime appointment after a one-time election.

Worse still, when one union wins the privilege to act as the exclusive representative for a group of government employees, other employee groups often lose out. We’ve seen this with both teachers and police.

3. The pamphlet fails to mention the history of teacher collective bargaining in Missouri. Instead, it simply alludes to a couple of Missouri Supreme Court cases in the late 2000s. In fact, the Missouri Supreme Court imposed collective bargaining on teachers in those cases. Prior to 2007, the courts had long held that the Missouri Constitution did not give government unions the right to collectively bargain with the government. Indeed, when collective bargaining language was added to the Missouri Constitution, collective bargaining with the government was seen as impossible and potentially unconstitutional.

Teachers’ unions, like the MNEA, may now collectively bargain with the government. However, this is not some long-established right. The court created teacher collective bargaining law only eight years ago. Whether you consider this an activist decision or the product of a living constitution, the law is still in flux. There is no reason for the MNEA to assume that principles used in the private sector, such as exclusive representation, have a necessary place in collective bargaining with the government.

February 18, 2015

How Much “Choice” Is in Senate Bill 1?

sb 1 word cloud

This session, the senate has worked to create a veto-proof bill that will “fix” the school transfer law. Does the 84-page document provide the educational opportunities families in unaccredited districts are hoping for?

There are a number of things the bill will do, but whether or not students will have more choice remains to be seen. Here are a few points dealing with educational options (the bill addresses many other issues):

  • First and foremost, the bill does not contain the voucher portion that resulted in Gov. Jay Nixon vetoing the transfer legislation last year. In the area surrounding Normandy High School, there are 17 private high schools within five miles. Check these options off the list.
  • As the word cloud above indicates, the focus of this year’s legislation is charter schools. The bill allows charter schools to expand in provisionally accredited districts. There are currently 10 provisionally accredited districts. Charter schools designated as “high quality” will have an expedited opportunity to gain charter reauthorization as well as replicate. These portions of the legislation may or may not expand choice. Thus far, zero charters exist outside of Saint Louis and Kansas City.
  • The proposed legislation allows students in unaccredited school districts to cross district boundaries and attend a charter school with an APR of 70 or higher. Here are the Saint Louis City charter school options for Normandy students. There is only one existing option for Normandy High School students.

normandy charter school options table

  • Under the new law, students would have to live in an unaccredited district for at least one semester and apply to transfer by a March 1 deadline. The new policy would exclude students from transferring if they were homeschooled, attended a private school, or moved into the community due to a change in guardianship. Students whose parents do not understand application procedures and miss the application deadline will remain within an unaccredited school.
  • The proposed legislation allows students to attend a virtual school either within a district or charter that sponsors the school or under transfer guidelines. A virtual school under the new law must meet a set of conditions. It is unclear which, if any, current virtual schools will meet those conditions.

Senate Bill 1 attempts to provide more choices for students in struggling schools. It also tries to resolve issues within the transfer program, such as who operates the transfer program and how transportation and tuition works. But this bill falls short in many ways. First, the proposed additional options in many cases do not yet exist. Until those options exist, students are limited. Second, the proposed law restricts open charter enrollment to unaccredited districts, which may deter charters from opening in places like Jennings, a provisionally accredited district with low student enrollment. Third, the transfer guidelines themselves are restrictive and arbitrary. As Senator David Pierce pointed out, one of the bill’s goals is to reduce the number of transfer students.

Judge Michael Burton ruled last week that Normandy is in fact unaccredited. He wrote, “As the transfer statute makes abundantly clear, every child deserves to be enrolled in a non-failing school district—now.” This bill may provide options for some students, but for many students, choice is still restricted. Until lawmakers see providing quality options as more of a priority than reducing transfers, we are unlikely to see a real “fix” to the transfer program.


February 13, 2015

School Visit Series: A Charter With a Community Impact

IMG_9752In Missouri, educational choice often involves students leaving a community to attend a quality school, but it is the reverse for Académie Lafayette in Kansas City, Missouri. According to Académie board member and realtor Pam Anderson Gard, the popular French immersion school has helped to revitalize the community surrounding its Oak Campus.

Académie Lafayette is a charter school, which serves grades K-8. The school’s language immersion program differs from traditional second-language instruction in that students both communicate and learn in French from the very first day of kindergarten.

The Oak Campus building was previously a French magnet school called Ecole Longan, closed by Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) in 2011. “There were several different groups interested in purchasing the [building], but the neighborhood supported Académie Lafayette because they wanted it to remain a school,” said Gard.

Development Director Sarah Guthrie added, “It was a more run-down neighborhood, and certainly now it’s being revived.”

Since the charter opened, developers have also moved into the neighborhood, including Kansas City Sustainable Development Partners, which purchased another closed building from KCPS. Still, Gard feels Académie Lafayette has had the largest impact, “If there are problems, somebody has to come in and fix them, and Académie Lafayette took care of this one.”

Wanting to maintain a high level of diversity among students, the charter draws in students from all socio-economic backgrounds. The map below shows the distribution of Académie Lafayette students across the city by family income category. The school reports that a few families have even moved from out of state in order to participate in the charter’s lottery. There’s no guarantee students will be admitted. In fact, out of the 200-plus students who apply only 60 are accepted each year. It’s clear that Académie Lafayette has a high demand.

Proposed legislation will make it easier for charters like Académie Lafayette to buy abandoned school buildings. Since abandoned buildings can cause a community further harm (increasing drug and gang activity, etc.), this legislation potentially could have a positive impact on urban neighborhoods.

Of Académie Lafayette’s experience buying an abandoned building, Gard said, “It was a closed school, and now it’s full of kids and laughter.”

map academie lafayette

February 12, 2015

For Charter Schools, SLPS Is Marie Antoinette

In Missouri, charter schools do not get money for facilities or transportation. A recent study by researchers from the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas found that, on average, charter schools in Missouri receive $4,682 less per pupil than their district counterparts. Yet, when charter schools seek access to district facilities, they are often told to go eat cake. That is, they are often given unreasonable prices for vacant school buildings.

Marie_Antoinette_by_Joseph_DucreuxRecently, Missouri lawmakers have sought to improve charter school access to school buildings by inserting a provision into a bill that would require school districts to convey unused school buildings to charter schools for a fair-market-value price. This suggestion was immediately scoffed at by the districts, who said they already sell buildings to charter schools.

Today, there are 26 different charter schools in Saint Louis (although some may share a building). Yet, only a few have purchased a building from SLPS. Gateway Science Academies, for example, purchased the Gardenville school. Of course, Gateway had to counter three times and ended up paying asking price, but SLPS did sell the building.

According to records obtained by a Show-Me Institute summer intern, SLPS has 35 empty school buildings, 22 of which are listed for sale. (Look for more on empty school buildings in an upcoming Show-Me Institute essay.)

It is true that in recent years St. Louis Public School officials have eased their opposition to selling school buildings to charter schools. Of course, they had an official policy that forbade the sale of properties to charter schools.

It is clear that charter schools are here to stay. The charter sector has been growing since its inception, and now 29 percent of all public school students in Saint Louis attend charter schools. Allowing public school buildings to remain vacant by making it onerous for charter schools to obtain facilities, while not giving them facilities funding, is simply bad for taxpayers.

So why should public school districts be required to sell, at a reasonable price, public school buildings to public charter schools? Because the taxpayers own the buildings.


February 11, 2015

How to Ensure Springfield Teachers’ Voices Are Heard

In many school districts, teachers are left out of the collective bargaining process simply because they do not belong to the right teachers association. Recertification elections can give these teachers a voice by requiring an association that acts as the exclusive representative to periodically run for reelection in order to maintain this privileged status.

A good illustration of this problem can be found in Springfield, Missouri. Springfield School District has long had teachers represented by both the Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA) and the Missouri National Education Association (MNEA). In 2010, MNEA won an election awarding it the privilege to be the exclusive representative for teachers in collective bargaining sessions with the district. This meant that MNEA, and only MNEA, could negotiate with the district on behalf of the teachers.

Your_Vote_Counts_BadgeWhen MNEA excluded nonmembers from discussions on whether to ratify the new union contract, MSTA sued. And lost. As the exclusive representative, MNEA is free to represent workers the way it sees fit. It does not have to include members of a rival union in its deliberation process.

Still, this may not seem very fair to a longtime MSTA member who only recently lost her ability to participate in internal school district politics because of the exclusive representative election. But with recertification elections, her voice can be heard even if her teachers association is not currently the exclusive representative.

With recertification elections, in order for an association to continue to act as the only association able to negotiate on behalf of employees, that association must be re-elected every couple of years. This would prevent an association from winning an election once, and then representing employees for years after the association has lost most of its supporters. It also would empower employees who belong to another association, because the exclusive representative would either have to do a good job of representing everyone’s interests or risk being voted out of office and replaced with a competitor.

Recertification elections are a lot like American democracy where a new party can be put in control of Congress every two years. Congress is by no means a perfect institution, but by requiring our representatives to stand for regular elections, we ensure some level of accountability. Teachers who feel that they don’t have a say in negotiations with their employer, such as MSTA members in Springfield, should clamor for recertification elections. It may be one of the best policy reforms we have that preserves existing rights while empowering workers to hold their representatives accountable.

Teacher Pensions: Let’s Not Become Illinois

When talking about pension reform, it’s easy to lose sight of the real, human consequences of the decisions policymakers make.

Jessica Canale is an art teacher in North Saint Louis City. She commutes every day from O’Fallon, Illinois. While it might seem like a trivial decision to choose between working on the east or west side of the Mississippi, in actuality, when it comes to the money that will be available when she retires, it matters a great deal.

In January, Dick Ingram, executive director of the Illinois Teachers Retirement System (TRS) explained just how bad Illinois’ fiscal position has become. In order to deliver promised benefits, the state has divided teachers into two categories—Tier I and Tier II.

Tier I teachers will enjoy promised benefits, while Tier II teachers, those hired after 2010, will receive greatly reduced benefits. According to Ingram, “Tier II is designed to help solve the financial problems faced by TRS and the other systems by reducing pension benefits for these new members. Lower pensions means reduced long-term costs for the state.”

But “reducing pension benefits” is an understatement. In order to pay for Tier I pensions, Tier II teachers and administrators will have to contribute 9.4 percent of their salary while only receiving 7 percent toward their retirement. No wonder Jessica would rather commute to Saint Louis than give 2.4 percent of her compensation to older teachers.

But Missouri is not much better. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, Missouri’s pension plan earned a grade of D-.

In his 2013 policy study on public employee pensions, AEI resident scholar Andrew Biggs called the situation in Missouri a “looming crisis.” Luckily, he offered several suggestions:

  • Promote better accounting, which will show the extent to which plans are underfunded.
  • Attract and retain quality public employees like Jessica by changing existing plan structures to either a defined contribution or a cash balance approach.
  • Give employees more freedom to choose the retirement plan that works for them.

As Show-Me Institute analysts have continuously argued, there are solutions to Missouri’s pension problems. For teachers like Jessica, Missouri has to do better.

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