April 17, 2015

SEMO May Embrace All-You-Can-Eat Education

Funnyman Owen Wilson describes the University of Phoenix as “the Harvard of Internet colleges” during an interview with Google in the film, The Internship.

“That reputation hasn’t made it out here,” responds the Google executive.

While online universities haven’t exactly obtained an “Ivy league” status, they certainly are impacting the education market.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC), such as Udacity and edX, provide free access to lectures, readings, and coursework. Participants can receive a certification or credit, which may be used for educational or professional purposes. In January, San Jose State announced a partnership with Udacity to offer remedial courses to incoming freshmen.

Last week, Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO) announced it would explore another type of online model, competency-based education. The model is based on Western Governors University (WGU), which is basically “all-you-can-eat.” Students pay one flat rate per term. This allows students to skip ahead by testing out of modules. It would be possible to earn a degree in one year for under $6,000.

wgu

While the quality of these programs and the acceptance by employers is debatable, MOOCs and competency-based programs are competition for state universities like SEMO and San Jose, who have had to adapt to attract students looking for a flexible, low-cost college experience.

April 16, 2015

What Public Schools Can Learn from Homeschool Parents

In March, dozens of families attended the Greater Saint Louis Home Educators Expo. The discussions led by parents, former educators, and homeschool alumni were an echo of what public school teachers have rallied for since the establishment of standardized testing—more creativity in education.

hands

Much like public school teachers, parents must ensure children receive a well-rounded education, but the difference is that parents are able to spend more time exploring their children’s interests.

“I want to help you love this,” Diana Waring explained to her children about her approach to educating at home.

Waring relayed her friend Beverly’s story.

Beverly was a mother who homeschooled her two boys. Lacking a college degree, she was afraid she would not be able to properly educate her children. One day, Beverly took her sons to the public library to pick out books that interested them. The boys gravitated toward cartoons. At home, they spent time creating their own drawings using homemade equipment. They caught the attention of a Disney cartoonist, who was amazed at what the boys were able to do on their own. Chris and Allan Miller are now professional graphic artists.

If the Miller brothers had been educated in a traditional school, certainly they would have been taught by a teacher with a college degree or higher, but would their creative interests have been fostered?

In Missouri, homeschool parents are directed to keep records of their children’s studies, much like the plan books teachers keep, but unless there is an issue—the state does not actively regulate what occurs inside the home environment. This freedom allows parents to teach in a stress-free atmosphere.

Often, homeschoolers are viewed with suspicion by traditional educators, but they shouldn’t be. Instead, officials should be looking for ways to provide a customized educational experience, like the homeschool experience of Chris and Allan Miller, for every child. We could start by creating an Education Savings Account program and empowering students with access to course choice.

April 15, 2015

Fewer Mandates, More Choices Needed in Education

got school choice

Schools today are asked to teach a lot more than reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic; and if lawmakers have their way, the list of topics mandated for instruction will continue to grow. Currently, proposals in the Missouri Legislature would require schools to caution students about sexual predators and inappropriate text messages, beef up bullying prevention, and cram in more civics education. While there may be value in these issues, continually mandating new requirements is counterproductive to improving Missouri’s educational system. It invites mission creep, distracts from core educational duties, and causes controversy.

Schools, and parents, do not need more mandates; they need more freedom.

Instead of dictating what schools should do, lawmakers should focus their attention on giving parents more educational options. Allow parents to choose the school that most closely aligns with their values and their sense of mission, whether the school is private, public charter, or traditional public. We cannot make sure that every school caters to every family’s needs and preferences, but we can make sure every family has the ability to choose the school that comes closest.

Simply layering mandates on top of one another will not solve any of our educational problems, and it will not improve the educational system. A system built around school choice, however, has a better chance at both. It will allow individuals to choose the school that meets their needs, without forcing their will on others. Choice also will help create a system of continual improvement, which leads to increased efficiency.

We cannot mandate our way to a system that meets everyone’s needs. The more we try, the further we erode a local school’s ability to adapt, innovate, and meet the individual needs of the students it serves. It’s time to stop asking schools to do more and more. It’s time to start allowing parents to choose.

April 13, 2015

K-12 Funding in Missouri—What’s the Solution?

I hear “Missouri’s public schools are underfunded” from educators, administrators, and concerned taxpayers on a regular basis. The Post-Dispatch recently published an op-ed by Show-Me Institute Distinguished Fellow James Shuls addressing this issue.

800px-Money_Cash

Shuls explained that we shouldn’t view our public school system as underfunded. Rather, we should view the system as set up poorly. He suggested reforming Missouri’s K-12 foundation formula:

We can make the formula far more rational. We can stop paying districts to educate students who no longer live within their boundaries. We can stop pegging funding targets to the wealthiest districts. We can stop holding local effort constant by using current assessments. And, if we’re going to have a system that allocates state aid fairly, we must.

The number of solutions he proposed was the most persuasive aspect of his examination of the funding “problem.”

He concluded, “It’s time to stop asking why we are underfunding our formula and start asking how we might design a better school funding system.”

April 9, 2015

Election of Convicted Felon to Wentzville School Board Should Sound Alarm

On Wednesday, voters in the Wentzville School District (of which I am one) found out they may have unknowingly elected a convicted felon to the school board. Michael Feinstein, one of two Wentzville school board candidates supported by the Wentzville National Education Association (WNEA) and the Missouri National Education Association (MNEA), was previously convicted of felony charges in Iowa. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports:

Feinstein pleaded guilty to charges stemming from his use of a credit card to steal about $105,000 from the health foundation he was working for in the early 2000s, news and court records say. He lost the money gambling.

Feinstein served a 38-day sentence in an Iowa prison. He completed his four years of probation.

Allegedly, the WNEA found out about the felony conviction on March 30. On March 31, the union pulled support by issuing a letter to WNEA members (see below).

Feinstein nea letter

 

Apparently the group also removed posts about Feinstein from its Facebook page. However, the WNEA did not alert the public to the issue or to the fact that they dropped support. As voters drove to their polling places, they passed scores of WNEA-approved signs supporting Feinstein. Some claim WNEA representatives were even standing in front of polling places holding these signs.

Feinstein nea sign

The election of a convicted felon to the school board brings up many questions. Should Feinstein have disclosed this information sooner? Did the union do its due diligence in vetting the candidate and disclosing the information once they found out about the prior conviction?

While these are important questions, there are some much more basic questions about the role of public-sector unions in elections. To which, this election should sound an alarm.

First, as the Show-Me Institute’s Brittany Wagner has written before, teachers’ unions are a special interest group that can have significant sway in elections. Teachers’ unions may be the sole special interest group active in local school district elections. The Wentzville School District has more than 1,800 employees, roughly half of which are certified teachers. Even in a relatively large district such as Wentzville, this can be more than enough to sway the vote when, as in Tuesday’s election, only a fraction of registered voters bothered to vote. The two candidates endorsed by the WNEA were victorious in the election and received almost the same number of votes. This fact leads to another question: Should we be concerned that when the union sits down to bargain with the school district, there are school board members whom the WNEA helped elect?

Second, dues-paying union members have no say in which political causes their dues support. Would most WNEA members have wanted any portion of their dues to be used to support Feinstein? This election, however, would probably just a drop in the bucket. Teachers’ unions are among the largest political contributors in the country.

This incident illustrates why Missouri should reconsider how we elect school board members and how those members interact with any unions in their districts. For example, should school board elections be in November where turnout is greater? Should collective bargaining negotiations be open to the public, not behind closed doors? Should public-sector unions have to make annual financial filings, just like private-sector unions, so their members and the public can know where union political support is going? Finally, shouldn’t teachers who want to be in the union for professional development and liability insurance purposes have the option before paying any dues to limit their payments to fund only those activities and not the union’s political activity?

These types of reforms may not prevent the election of convicted felons, but they would go a long way to ensuring taxpayers have a seat at the table when it comes to their local schools.

Shedding Light on Anti-transparency Arguments

The Francis Quadrangle columns and main building at the Universi

A bill is making its way through the Missouri Senate that would require public universities to disclose basic information about college courses. Ordinarily, a bill like this wouldn’t be necessary, but a recent court decision gave Missouri’s public universities cover for keeping syllabi and other course content closed from the Sunshine Law. The professors and administrators trying to keep course content from the Sunshine Law argue that transparency laws harm their intellectual property interests. This argument rings false for three simple reasons:

  1. The anti-transparency faction at the University of Missouri argues that professors own the content of their courses, while the University of Missouri’s own rules suggest otherwise. According to 100.030.A.2 of the Collected Rules, the university owns the copyright to “works that are commissioned for University use by the University” and “works that are created by employees if the production of the materials is a specific responsibility of the position for which the employee is hired.”
  2. Even if professors have an intellectual property interest in syllabi, nothing about making this information publicly available would prevent professors from enforcing a copyright claim. If a member of the public accesses a syllabus through the Sunshine Law and then plagiarizes the syllabus, the professor could still sue for a violation of copyright. Making information publicly accessible is not a bar to enforcing copyright.
  3. Fair use should protect disclosure of public records pursuant to state sunshine laws. Fair use doctrine allows for copyrighted work to be transformed or appropriated, within limits, for certain educational, scholarly, satirical, and noncommercial uses. In other words, fair use protects creators and commentators alike, facilitating discussions about ideas and, ultimately, building knowledge for society. For a publicly funded university system to reject this well-established framework suggests that it wants neither the comment nor the discussion the publication of these syllabus materials may generate. If that’s the system’s goal, it’s an appalling objective for an institution of higher learning, public or otherwise.

I doubt college administrators and university professors are ignorant of these facts. I suspect that the intellectual property argument is just an excuse for avoiding the transparency requirements that every other public entity is subject to. If you don’t want the potential scrutiny that comes with transparency, then perhaps you shouldn’t work for a public institution.

April 3, 2015

Missouri Jumps on the ESA Bandwagon—Hurray!

8653763095_3c23b9f265_bBritish Mathematician Alfred North Whitehead said, “Every really new idea looks crazy at first.” Perhaps that’s what school choice critics thought of Arizona’s Education Savings Account (ESA) program when it was introduced in 2011. Now, 22 state legislatures plus Missouri are considering ESA programs for the 2015 school year.

Missouri followed the lead of other states by introducing Senate Bill 531, which would create an ESA program. An ESA provides funds for educational services for students with disabilities. These services may include:

tuition or fees at a qualified school; textbooks required by a qualified school; educational therapies or services; tutoring services; curriculum; tuition or fees for a nonpublic online learning program; fees for certain standardized tests; contributions to a 529 plan; tuition or fees at an eligible postsecondary institution . . . 

While Mississippi’s ESA bill has been passed by the house and senate, Missouri still has a ways to go. No hearing has been set.

April 1, 2015

Should School Districts Be Too Small to Fail?

school funding

When an individual gets financial support from the government, we call it an “entitlement.” When a large business gets tax breaks, we call it “corporate welfare.” However, when a small school district cannot afford to keep its doors open without significant support from the state, we call it an “issue of local control.”

Right now, there are 191 districts with 350 or fewer students enrolled. These districts get less than half of their funding from local sources, 46 percent on average. The rest comes from state (44 percent) and federal (10 percent) sources. The smallest district in the state, Gorin R-III, for example, has just 19 students enrolled. The district raises just 38 percent of operating expenditures locally, while 54 percent comes from the state. Then there is Plainview R-VIII, enrollment 81. With the low tax rate of just $2.9123 per $100 of assessed valuation, Plainview raises just 28 percent of the operating funds locally, while 63 percent comes from the state. In all, 141 of the small districts receive less than half of their funding for operating expenses from local sources.

These districts are able to exist because of generous state support. Specifically, the state legislature sets aside $15 million for school districts with fewer than 350 students. This is in addition to the funding that comes through the state’s foundation formula for K-12 public schools.

In my last post, I discussed House Bill 1292 and asked if school consolidation was an issue of local control. I received a couple of comments that said it was. Maybe they are right. Maybe it should be a local decision to join with a neighboring district. Whether these small districts should receive additional state funding, however, is not an issue of local control. It is an issue that all taxpayers and all state policymakers should have a say in.

Should school districts be too small to fail? That is, do small school districts deserve extra financial support because they may close if they do not receive extra funding?

I am completely sympathetic to arguments of local control. However, I’m concerned too many claim local control only when it suits them. It certainly seems contradictory to claim sovereignty, while going hat in hand to state taxpayers for additional funds.

 

March 31, 2015

Audit the Kansas City Public Schools

We actually went back about eight years and found that there was over $25 million paid in stipends either unapproved, unauthorized or improper. I have to say, with all the money paid in stipends, the district would not be in the condition it’s in if it were under control.

This quote comes from the late Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich, in remarks about his report on the St. Joseph School District. In the same story, Schweich reported, “There were significant other problems with payroll, overtime hours, summer school credits, nepotism issues and other questionable spending.”

The St. Joseph District is not alone in wanting to spend more money. The Kansas City Public School District has been putting “trial balloons” in the air for some time seeking to increase the taxes that fund schools. Many education advocates want to spend more money on teachers and in the classroom. But in Kansas City, the amount spent per student, approximately $16,000 per pupil per year, is already very high. The likely problem, as highlighted by Schweich’s audit in St. Joe, is that the money is often not making it to the classroom; it is being eaten up by administrators through bad policy and perhaps even fraud.

In his 2011 audit of the Kansas City School District, Schweich found lots of similar problems. According to a story by KCTV:

The district could not account for $4 million in food costs and student incentives, repeatedly failed to competitively bid projects and monitor contracts, has excessive overtime and failed to properly oversee its closed buildings, the audit found.

The state audit said a principal at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy made $58,000 in unauthorized purchases and cash withdrawals. Jamia Dock is no longer at the school and has been charged in Jackson County Circuit Court with stealing more than $25,000 in district funds. She has pleaded not guilty and the case is still pending.

The Kansas City School Board was also faulted for repeatedly violating the Missouri Sunshine Law.

Schweich’s 2011 audit grade for KCPS was “Fair,” of a four-point scale including “Excellent,” “Good,” “Fair,” and “Poor.” According to the auditor’s office, most of these findings assume that district spending numbers are correct, which means they don’t do the time-consuming work of digging into expenses. Even still, for Kansas City to score in the bottom half is an indictment.

Many parents and teachers want to see more money making it to the classroom. As Schweich’s comment at the top of this post suggested, efficient money management means that more money can be made available where it matters most. If the Kansas City School District wants to build trust with parents, teachers, and taxpayers, they should invite a thorough and recurring examination of their books and remain transparent in all their expenditures.

classroom

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?

Money

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.

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