April 17, 2014

Pennsylvania’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program…Winning!

This week, the Show-Me Institute released our third and final case study about tax credit scholarship programs in other states: “Pennsylvania’s Education Improvement Tax Credit Program: A Winning Educational Partnership.”

The study’s author, Andrew LeFevre, is well acquainted with Pennsylvania’s tax credit scholarship program, having served as the executive director of the REACH Alliance and the REACH Foundation, statewide school choice organizations. He wrote:

In 2001, Pennsylvania became the first state in the nation to enact a highly innovative public-private partnership in the form of an education tax credit aimed at corporations. Since then, the popular Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) Program has provided more than 430,000 scholarships to students from low- and middle-class families . . .

In 2012-13 alone, the program provided more than 68,000 K-12 and pre-K scholarships. “The EITC Program has accomplished what many have been advocating for years: a way for the business community to be involved in children’s education and provide more schooling options,” LeFevre said.

I encourage you to check out this new case study along with our studies about tax credit scholarship programs in New Hampshire and Arizona. I also invite you to learn more about tax credit scholarships by attending our event on April 25, “Expanded Opportunities: A Discussion About Tax Credit Scholarships.”

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April 15, 2014

Unappointed Charter School Commission Undermines Intent Of Law

School Icon

In 2012, the Missouri General Assembly passed a bipartisan charter school law. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported, the bill “could expand charter schools statewide while making it easier to weed out underperforming ones.” That was the intent of the law, to expand and to improve charter schools in Missouri. A key part of this effort was the creation of “The Missouri Charter Public School Commission.” Last year, the Missouri Legislature approved $300,000 for operations of the commission. Yet, almost two years after being established in state statute, that commission has yet to be appointed.

Senate Bill 576 (2012) states the “commission shall consist of nine members appointed by the governor, by and with the advice and consent of the senate.” The governor is to select four candidates, from slates that the commissioner of education, the commissioner of higher education, the president pro tempore of the Senate, and the speaker of the House of Representatives provide. The governor appoints the remaining five candidates, but one must be selected from a slate that the Missouri School Boards Association provides.

The commission would play an important and needed role.  Like universities, it could sponsor and oversee charter schools, but it also could serve as an important safeguard. The Southeast Missourian noted, “Under current law, the State Board of Education can suspend a charter school sponsor, but the board then takes responsibility for the schools.” The passed and signed legislation “would make the Missouri Charter Public School Commission responsible for those schools.”

By not appointing this commission, the intent of the law is not being fulfilled. I’m told that the slates have been submitted, but still no appointments have been made.  There is no reason to delay these appointments further.

April 14, 2014

Proactive Is The New Reactive

There is a lot of talk these days in Jefferson City about being proactive in public schools. Currently, when a school drops below a set performance mark, the district becomes unaccredited. Students are then able to transfer out of the district to a nearby accredited one. Many view this as a reactive, nuclear option. What we need, they say, is early intervention. We need to be proactive when a school starts to struggle. I hate to get tied up in semantics, but by definition, targeting schools that are struggling is reactive, not proactive. It is a reaction to their declining performance.

Lawmakers have their hearts in the right place, but they place too much confidence in their ability to dictate solutions from Jefferson City. After I testified before the Missouri House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee about the student transfer issue, one representative asked me what lawmakers should do to help those struggling school districts.

“What advice would you give us?” she asked.

“I would tell you that you cannot mandate excellence and you cannot dictate innovation,” I said.

“You would have us do nothing?” she asked.

“No, I would have you get out of the way,” I said. “Remove unnecessary restrictions and burdensome regulations. Free the local schools to innovate.”

Missouri could:

Reform teacher tenure policies; remove Last In, First Out provisions; and reform teacher pensions so schools have more flexibility in staffing decisions.

Change seat time and class restrictions that inhibit some blended learning and online learning models.

Try something like Kentucky’s “Districts of Innovation,” where school districts can become “exempt from certain administrative regulations and statutory provisions.”

Responding to government failure with more government action is not being proactive. Policies like the ones cited above are proactive. They put the power into the hands of the school leaders on the ground. A proactive system is one that gives school leaders the freedom to be innovative and gives parents the ability to choose.

April 11, 2014

Mark Your Calendars For Our April 25 Tax Credit Scholarship Event

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When I speak about tax credit scholarships, I get a lot of questions: What is a tax credit scholarship? How would that work? What are the chances of that passing in Missouri?

If you want to find out the answer to these and other questions, join us on April 25 at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Mo. We are partnering with the Hammond Institute for Free Enterprise at Lindenwood University to present a dynamite event, “Expanded Opportunities: A Discussion About Tax Credit Scholarships.”

Jason Bedrick, of the Cato Institute, and Jonathan Butcher, of the Goldwater Institute, will present information about how these programs are working in other states. You can download their recent case studies for the Show-Me Institute about the New Hampshire and Arizona programs directly from our website.

Attendees also will be able to take part in a panel discussion with Missouri Sen. John Lamping (R-Dist. 24), Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal (D-Dist. 14), Missouri Speaker of the House Tim Jones (R-Dist. 110), and Rep. Michael Butler (D-Dist. 79).

RSVP online, mark your calendars, tell your friends, and join us on April 25.

April 10, 2014

Let’s Fix The Transfer Problem ‘One Piece At A Time’

One Piece at a Time” is one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs. In the song, a young man goes to “workin’ on a ‘sembly line” in a Detroit auto plant. He devises a plan to build a car by sneaking parts out one piece at a time. In the end, he has created a “’49, ’50, ’51, ’52, ’53, ’54, ’55, ’56, ’57, ’58, ’59 automobile.” I was reminded of this song as I drafted my testimony for Missouri Senate Committee Substitute for Senate Bills 493, 485, 495, 516, 534, 545, 595, 616, 624. It wasn’t just the name of the bill that reminded me of the song, but the way that so many different parts that seemingly do not go together were crammed into one bill.

Though the bill touches on many different topics, I tried to limit my testimony to the crux of the bill — the student transfer issue. As I said in my testimony:

Ever since the Missouri Supreme Court upheld a student’s right to transfer from an unaccredited school district to a nearby accredited one, Missouri school leaders have coordinated efforts to put an end to the transfer law. Some concerns regarding the transfer program hold merit. For instance, the current law has the potential to lead to the bankruptcy of unaccredited districts or to lead to overcrowding in accredited ones. Unfortunately, these problems have led many to ask, “How can we end student transfers?” rather than, “How can we make the transfer law work for students?”

Missouri Sen. David Pearce (R-Dist. 21) reiterated this point, stating that this bill is intended to reduce the number of students transferring.

Allowing students to choose their school is a good thing and we can make this program work for students if we institute four changes.

  1. Give accredited school districts the right to determine how many students they will accept.
  2. Fix the tuition calculation so that unaccredited districts will not be forced to pay rates that are higher than they spend themselves.
  3. Expand choice to private schools in the same or adjoining counties.
  4. Establish a fund to provide transportation for transfer students. Appropriations from general revenue and donations from the public could fund this.

You can read more details about my suggestions in my full testimony.

April 2, 2014

New Documentary Highlights Criticism Of Common Core

On Monday, the Home School Legal Defense Association released a documentary about the Common Core State Standards, “Building the Machine.” There is an obvious bias against the standards in the film, which means Common Core proponents undoubtedly will pan it as propaganda. Nevertheless, the documentary does present some pretty compelling criticisms of the Common Core development process and the standards themselves.

It also does something that Common Core proponents haven’t done very well; it treats individuals with opposing ideas with some respect, ominous music notwithstanding. For example, Michael Farris, founder of Home School Legal Defense Association, stated:

David Coleman [lead writer of Common Core] is a nice man…I don’t agree with his approach at all. I don’t agree with his philosophy. I think that on balance his proposals are not for the good of the public schools. They certainly aren’t good for homeschoolers or private schools. You know, I have some criticism there. But the man’s motives, I don’t think we should be attacking people for their motives. Because, he wants to try to improve the public school system. He genuinely believes that systemization and centralization and data collection are good things for kids.

His point was the underlying current of the film – people have deeply held convictions on issues of education and those convictions often vary.

The film ends with this message:

Decades of research show that the single most important element in a child’s education is parental involvement. So, regardless of which side you support in the reformation of America’s schools…Be involved.

That is good advice. In fact, it is the same advice Emily Watson shared on the Show-Me Daily blog about a month ago.

March 6, 2014

When Did You Stop Beating Your Wife? – Common Core Edition

Loaded questions are a great way of winning an argument. It puts your opponent on the defensive and frames the discussion in a way that makes it almost impossible for him or her to win. Supporters of the Common Core State Standards have used this tactic time and again. They ask, “Why don’t you like rigorous standards?”

Most recently, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education posted a video using this tactic – “What Would You Say to a Critic of Higher Standards?” In the video, a few of Missouri’s teachers of the year answer the question. How can someone argue with them? How can you argue against higher standards?

There is just one problem, I don’t know of anyone who argues against the Common Core State Standards because they are too rigorous. In fact, most arguments against the standards call into question the quality of the standards. Take, for instance, Sandy Stotsky. She was a member of the Common Core validation team and refused to sign off on the standards.

“Everyone was willing to believe that the Common Core standards are ‘rigorous,’ ‘competitive,’ ‘internationally benchmarked,’ and ‘research-based.’ They are not,” Stotsky said.

But according to DESE, it is not possible to question the quality of the standards. What’s more, apparently we are supposed to be in awe of the standards as well. In the video, Robert Becker, the 2010-11 Missouri Teacher of the Year, says, “If you actually sit down and read them, they’re beautiful. There’s no way you could object to them. You could do nothing but admire them.”

Really?

Let’s try it out. Here are a couple of standards:

CCSS.Math.Content.1.MD.A.2 Express the length of an object as a whole number of length units, by laying multiple copies of a shorter object (the length unit) end to end; understand that the length measurement of an object is the number of same-size length units that span it with no gaps or overlaps.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.3.3 Ask and answer questions about information from a speaker, offering appropriate elaboration and detail.

Are they beautiful? Do you want to sit back and admire them?

We cannot have a serious discussion about the Common Core until proponents recognize that questions of their “rigor” and their “beauty” are debatable. Reputable scholars disagree on the matter. Instead of asking the loaded question, “Why don’t you like rigorous standards?” Common Core supporters should open up to real dialogue. They could start by asking, “Could the standards be improved?”

March 3, 2014

Announcing New Case Study: Live Free and Learn

Over the course of the past year, I have spoken and written a lot about tax credit scholarships. When I do, I am often bombarded with questions. “Who would be eligible?” “How would this work?” “How much are the scholarships worth?” The questions go on and on. My response often is, “It depends.” Tax credit scholarship programs can be, and have been, designed in many different ways. Still, the Show-Me Institute wanted to give some concrete examples for Missourians to consider and to help answer some of the questions or concerns about tax credit scholarships. Therefore, we commissioned three case studies about tax credit scholarship programs in other states by some top experts. We will be releasing these case studies over the next few weeks.

Today, we are pleased to announce the release of “Live Free And Learn: A Case Study Of New Hampshire’s Scholarship Tax Credit Program,” by Jason Bedrick. Bedrick is a policy analyst at Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. Previously, he served as a legislator in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, a small state with the “fourth-largest English-speaking legislative body in the world.” After his time in office, he was instrumental in the passage of the Granite State’s tax credit scholarship program.

His paper describes the particulars of the New Hampshire scholarship program. It also provides data from the first survey of scholarship recipients. The survey indicates that most of the scholarship recipients were from low-income families. The tax credit scholarship allowed many students to attend private schools that they would not have been able to afford without the support that the program offered.

As you might imagine, parents who received a scholarship for their child tended to be very satisfied. In fact, “All of the scholarship recipients who attended a public school in the previous year reported greater satisfaction with their current school” (p. 19).

I encourage you to take a look at “Live Free And Learn.” And stay tuned for our next two tax credit scholarship case studies.

February 26, 2014

Education Savings Accounts Are Good For Kids

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On Feb. 24, the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger published an editorial supporting the establishment of education savings accounts (ESA) in the Magnolia state. The Mississippi ESA proposal closely resembles a proposal currently before the Missouri Legislature in that it would provide support to students with special needs. Essentially, it would allow students with special needs to receive financial assistance from the state. The students could then use that money to tailor their education to fit their needs.

The Clarion-Ledger wrote:

The Parents’ Campaign and others who oppose the proposal — called the Equal Opportunity for All Students with Special Needs Act — claim it’s a voucher program that would strip money from local districts.

But parents of special-needs children and others who support it say it’s a lifeline and a last-resort measure that will give them the ability to do what the state apparently cannot: Educate their children.

School districts doing a good job educating special-needs children have little to fear. Nary is the parent who will withdraw a child from an excellent educational setting.

In Florida, which passed a statewide choice program for special-needs students in 2001, just six percent of eligible students use the program, according to the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education.

We support public schools, but we cannot support the systemic failure of certain students over the course of several decades without any signal from MDE that something will change.

As I have written before, “the beauty of ESAs is that they are versatile.” They put children and their families in the driver’s seat regarding their education. The Clarion-Ledger editorial board recognizes this fact.

Arizona was the first state to create an ESA program and parents have been very satisfied. Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Iowa may be the next states to adopt an ESA program. Will Missouri join that list? It would certainly help if papers such as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch or the Kansas City Star came to the same conclusion as the Clarion-Ledger — that ESAs are good for kids.

(H/T Matt Ladner and Jay Greene.)

February 23, 2014

Are Centralized Standards Needed For A World-Class Education?

Tinfoil

On Thursday, sporting my tin foil hat, I drove to Jefferson City to testify against the Common Core State Standards. For a long time, proponents of Common Core have tried to paint detractors as a bunch of kooks. And to be honest, there are some ideas floating around that are a little wacky. But proponents who attempt to smear all Common Core cynics as conspiracy theorists, nut jobs, or crazy people ignore many of the issues surrounding the new de facto national standards.

Part of the problem is that supporters and opponents of the standards are too often talking past each other. Supporters put blinders on and say, “Common Core are just standards.” Opponents, on the other hand, too often point to all of the other stuff – data mining, recommended texts, etc. – and they ignore that the “Common Core are just standards.”

While I believe “all the other stuff” is important, let’s not neglect the argument about standards. Sometimes, we need to engage the proponents on their terms. Sometimes we need to talk about the standards. That is what I tried to address in my testimony.

Do we even need centrally imposed standards? Missouri did not adopt statewide standards until 1996. That’s right, for 175 years Missouri did not have centrally imposed standards. I imagine many of you reading this grew up in an era without centrally imposed standards. Does that mean that we did not have any educational standards? By no means. Rather, these decisions were decided at the local level.

Think about private schools. Without government coercion, many private schools have established learning standards that are more rigorous than our state standards. Yet, for some reason, we have come to believe that the only way we can have a world-class education system is to have a centrally governed education system that imposes standards on local schools. That is simply not the case.

February 13, 2014

Education’s Magic Wand

Nobody likes to fail, and when it comes to failures in our education system, the education bureaucracy thinks that no one should be held accountable. So in order to deal with failing school districts, the Missouri School Boards Association would like to pretend it isn’t happening. According to the Kansas City Star:

The Missouri School Boards Association on Monday announced that many districts and organizations are pitching an idea that unaccredited districts would be willing to enter into a performance agreement with the state school board. While the districts are under that agreement, the state would classify them as provisionally accredited, freeing the districts and their neighboring districts from the transfer law.

As my colleague James Shuls has noted, this idea is just a shell game. What’s more, it ignores the fact that schools are already in a performance agreement and they have failed to perform. That’s the whole point of accreditation. Missouri Rep. Jay Barnes (R-Dist. 60) equates this proposal to a magic wand and issued a statement reading in part:

This plan doesn’t require any evidence of actual improvement, and it makes a joke of the accreditation process. It changes the school accreditation process from one which requires accountability to one which perpetuates failure without consequence. It’s geared toward protecting existing power structures rather than ensuring substantive changes to improve the lives of Missouri families with students trapped in struggling schools.

Change is difficult, but after decades of failure from the St. Louis and Kansas City school districts, who can seriously argue that they deserve one more chance? It is more likely that school boards are more interested in protecting their own interests than meeting the needs of Missouri families. Barnes ends his piece with this:

In recent years, the State Board has shown it has the political courage to make difficult decisions regarding struggling districts, and it’s my hope that the Board will continue that tradition.

The Show-Me Institute shares that hope.

February 12, 2014

What Does Common Core Mean For Homeschoolers?

The Common Core State Standards have brought a wave of protests from concerned parents throughout the country, including here in Missouri. States readily adopted these standards without properly investigating what the standards, and everything that comes with them, would mean for their students. Now many states are balking at implementation. Amid the growing debate, one group often overlooked in the conversation is homeschoolers. Many in the homeschool community are still trying to figure out what the new standards mean for them.

Having the ability to customize their child’s curriculum is one of the main reasons parents choose to homeschool. Some worry that the new standards may infringe on their ability to do so.

The creators of the SAT and ACT are already working on aligning their tests to Common Core. Public schools are changing their curriculum to align with the new standards and tests. There is concern that homeschoolers will struggle on the redesigned state and national standardized tests unless they also align their curriculum. This defeats the purpose of homeschooling – to have greater flexibility and autonomy.

The more state standardized tests and college entrance exams align to the Common Core, the more textbook companies will align their curriculum to the Common Core. Over time, this could leave homeschooling parents with fewer and fewer alternatives from which to choose. It is difficult to know what the exact impact will be; what is certain is that the issue is not going away anytime soon. Parents, whether homeschooling or not, should continue to question Common Core and to educate themselves about the standards and their potential effects.

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