May 29, 2015

A Private School That’s Out of This World


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 13, 2015

Can Normandy Be Saved?

Normandy (2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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.

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.


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 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.

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 20, 2015

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 11, 2015

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.

January 23, 2015

For Education, It’s More of the Same

Basic RGB

In Wednesday night’s State of the State address, Gov. Jay Nixon doubled down on the same education initiatives that have gotten us nowhere—increased funding, mandated standards, accountability tests, strong tenure laws, smaller class sizes, increased teacher salaries. This has been the strategy for the past 20 years, and it hasn’t worked.

Since 1992, per-pupil spending in Missouri has increased nearly 40 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars. Missouri has had state-imposed learning standards since 1993. We’ve participated in No Child Left Behind mandated testing for more than a decade. Teachers are given an indefinite contract after five years, making it difficult to remove even an ineffective teacher. In 2014, there were approximately 13 students to every one teacher. The average teacher’s salary is nearing $50,000, with a 14.5 percent match on retirement contributions and benefits that far surpass private-sector counterparts.

More of the same is not going to propel Missouri forward.

Allowing charter schools to enroll students across district boundaries, creating opportunity scholarships, reducing mandates—these are the types of policies that will create an ever-improving educational market. These are the types of changes we need.

If we truly believe that “education is the key to the economic future of our state,” as the governor suggested, then we need to re-think our policies and re-imagine what it means to have a quality public education system. Mandating, taxing, and spending will not get us to the schools that we need. We need policies that enable school leaders to be change agents who empower parents with educational options.

January 15, 2015

Missouri Ranks 33rd on New Quality Counts Report


As they do at the beginning of every year, Education Week released their “Quality Counts” state report cards. Once again, Missouri ranks in the middle of the pack, 33rd overall with a C- grade. For regular readers of the Show-Me Daily blog, this should come as no surprise. Missouri has been stuck in the middle for years.

Why is Missouri perpetually in the middle when it comes to academic rankings? After all, we are several years into an initiative launched by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to get Missouri into the top 10 by 2020. This initiative has spawned changes at nearly every stage of education, from pre-kindergarten to teacher preparation. One could argue that these changes just haven’t had time to take root, and once they do, Missouri students will be making academic gains like gangbusters. I doubt it.

Missouri is not likely to make significant improvements, because Missouri’s education policies are predicated on getting things right—if we get certification right, teachers will get better; if we get standards right, instruction will improve; if we get accountability tests right, achievement will rise. The list could go on and on. The problem is that we don’t know the “right” way to do these things for every child and every teacher in every school, and we never will. Until our education policies shift from a “getting things right” mentality to one that fosters continuous improvement, we should not expect marketable differences in outcomes.

How do we do this? Andy Smarick outlines a nice plan in his book, The Urban School System of the Future. He starts with a somewhat controversial but true premise, “The traditional urban public school system is broken, and it cannot be fixed. It must be replaced.” Smarick goes on to substantiate this claim and offer a solution, creating an educational market where new schools regularly open and bad schools regularly close. This is how improvement happens in every other sector.

Smarick’s proposal would require substantial legislative changes, but here are two easy places for Missouri to start moving in the right direction.

  1. Allow charter schools to enroll students across district boundaries.
  2. Expand options for students by establishing an Equal Opportunity Scholarship program.

These changes themselves will not get us anywhere near what The Urban School System of the Future outlined. They will, however, begin moving Missouri toward that system of continuous improvement.

Older Posts »
A project of the

Search Show-Me Sunshine docs @

Top Posts

Show-Me Data



Powered by Wordpress