October 23, 2014

An Idea for Kansas City Schools: Give Principals Power

Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) is seeking input from parents, school staff, and the community about how it might regain and sustain full accreditation and retain and attract students. To that end, it is forming a School Improvement Advisory Committee (SIAC) and has been seeking applicants to serve in that capacity. We have a few ideas we’d like to share about strengthening administration and staff, rewarding teachers, and empowering parents.

First, it is noteworthy that the stated purpose of the advisory committee is seemingly small ball. Their email soliciting participation asks only,

What’s it going to take for Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) to regain full accreditation? What’s it going to take for your school to regain/sustain full accreditation? How can we retain and attract students?

In other words, “What do we have to do to provide the minimal state-required level of service?” We’re also suspect that they are looking toward parents and the community for ideas when there is an entire industry of specialists who have researched, written, and talked about what to do to improve schools. We at the Show-Me Institute have our own suggestions, and they aim at rebuilding world-class education in Kansas City. All our ideas have a common theme: Move power away from centralized school districts and toward students and parents.

For his 2003 book Making Schools Work, UCLA Professor and Author William G. Ouchi studied more than 200 schools in six cities and found that a school’s educational success may be most directly affected by how it is managed. The way to increase successful management, he argues, is to give schools more control over their own budget.

While schools may boast large budgets, Ouchi’s research uncovered that very little of it is controlled by the principal or the school itself. In one anecdote, he relates that a Los Angeles principal said her school had a budget of $21 million but added, “It doesn’t really matter because I only control $32,000.” Ouchi’s further research indicated that in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago the local schools only controlled 6.1 percent, 6.7 percent, and 19.1 percent of the budget, respectively.

In school districts that have seen tremendous improvements in their urban school performances, such as Seattle, Houston, and Edmonton, Canada, the percentage of the budget controlled by the local schools was 91.7, 79.3, and 58.6, respectively. This should be no surprise. Administrators, teachers, and parents at the school are best able to identify and address the specific needs of their students.

Here in Kansas City, better school management means moving the power of the purse away from the top-down centralized control at 12th and McGee streets and out to the principals at Paseo, Lincoln Prep, and elsewhere. Ouchi offers this warning to parents:

Control goes with the money. If your superintendent smiles, invites your group into his office, and tells you that he agrees with you and that he’s going to roll out a new school-based decision-making program that includes parent involvement—smile sweetly and ask him who will control the school’s budget. Don’t let him off the hook. Don’t let him think that you can be so easily fooled.

Remember, the author was chief of staff to Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. He has academic credentials, but he has weathered political fights as well. And the Kansas City district appears to be doing exactly what he describes: They smile, invite people to discuss the district, but surrender none of the control that is necessary for success.

August 22, 2014

Education: A Brief History Of Federal Overreach

When Americans think of federal overreach in education, they might think of programs like Race to the Top, Common Core, or No Child Left Behind, but federal education interventions began long before the Age of Standardized Testing.

Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon B. Johnson enacted a series of welfare programs called the War on Poverty. One of these programs was Head Start, a program aimed at preparing low-income children for kindergarten.

Also under the umbrella of the War on Poverty, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was enacted in 1965. The purpose of ESEA was to start funding schools with federal money, but it forbade a national curriculum.

Under President Jimmy Carter’s administration, the Department of Education was founded in 1979. Just a few years later, in 1983, the American public was shocked by the findings of A Nation at Risk, a report issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education during President Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

President George H. W. Bush and President Bill Clinton left their mark on standards-based education in the 1990s with America 2000 (Bush) and Goals 2000 (Clinton).

In 2001, President George W. Bush reauthorized the ESEA under a new name, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and in 2011, the U.S. Department of Education began awarding states with flexibility waivers from NCLB if they did things like adopt Common Core or evaluate teachers based on student achievement.


In just 50 years, federal oversight in education has grown and evolved. On the anniversary of one of LBJ’s key initiatives, some are calling for even more government intervention to fix the inequalities that still plague the United States today.

But federal intervention will not solve Missouri’s education problems—just look at the results. Few would argue the education system in America is in good shape, or that every child is receiving a quality education. So why institute more government intervention?

If the past 50 years has taught us anything, it’s that Missouri needs to enter a new era of education reform, one in which choice and competition are embraced.



July 16, 2014

Kansas City Schools Adopt CEE-Trust, Sort Of

In January 2014, Joe Robertson, of the Kansas City Star, wrote the following about the CEE-Trust proposal for Kansas City public school reform to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE):

The plan caters to charter schools — public schools that operate independently of school districts. But they would not be charter schools. They would be accountable to the district’s Community School Office.

Funding would flow through the district, and the school operators would maintain high degrees of independence only as long as they met their performance agreements.

The central office would own and maintain the buildings, operate bus services for all the schools and coordinate a lottery-based enrollment process with a standard expulsion policy.

In a Feb. 8 Kansas City Star editorial titled “Don’t Embrace Experimental Overhaul,” the paper opposed the proposed reform:

Sustained board leadership has been a challenge for many charter schools in Kansas City. We also question whether a collection of independently run schools, some of which would enroll students through a lottery, would appeal to families looking at Kansas City as a place to live. Strong neighborhood schools in a stable district seem a more reliable option.

As for the latter question, we’ve already written about independently run schools attracting students. But on June 26, the same Star editorial board heralded the school district partnership with Academie Lafayette, writing:

An unprecedented agreement with the Academie Lafayette charter school shows an encouraging willingness to be innovative.

Plans call for the district and Academie Lafayette to start up a high school that would offer the rigorous international baccalaureate program. It would be housed at the Southwest Early College Campus at 6512 Wornall Road, and could open as early as the fall of 2015…

The move puts children and families first and represents a radical departure from the often tense relationships among traditional districts and the charter schools that states have set up as alternative public options.

The Star at first decries the “experimental overhaul” of CEE-Trust, but just months later champions “an unprecedented” “radical departure,” which seems to amount to exactly the same thing. They write that this new option “puts children and families first,” but in fact it only does so for children and families at one school. Why not everyone in the district? What is it about the children and families at Academie Lafayette that warrants special attention?

July 2, 2014

IFF Provides Map for “Quality” Charter Schools

iff widget

IFF, a nonprofit community development financial institution based out of Chicago, released its latest widget last week. The widget is an interactive map, which allows St. Louisans to directly manipulate variable layers like educational attainment, non-English speakers, poverty, and age. The most stunning layer is zip code rank.

The zip code rank layer shows which St. Louis City zip codes have the most need for quality schools—the lighter the gray, the higher the need. Need is based on what IFF calls the service gap, or the difference between supply (capacity of districts designated as “Accredited” or “Accredited with Distinction”) and demand (students enrolled in district and charter schools). IFF found that St. Louis needs 18, 987 more seats in accredited schools to serve all of its K-12 students. IFF also found that 63 percent of the service gap was concentrated in six neighborhoods. With support from Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis Public Schools superintendent Kelvin Adams, the institution made a few recommendations, including: Encourage district partnerships with charter schools like KIPP.

This is a recommendation we support. Research points to the effectiveness of quality charter schools in urban areas, but simply saying “we need quality charter schools” isn’t enough.  The next step is to identify what a “quality charter school” is.  Harvard economist Roland Fryer points to five qualities: frequent teacher feedback, data driven instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time, and relentless focus on academic achievement.  Schools like KIPP echo Fryer’s findings (KIPP teachers work Monday through Friday from 7:10 am to 5:00 pm and every other Saturday).

Studies like Fryer’s and real world examples like KIPP serve as a road map for building quality charter schools, but the path to quality education starts with parents.  Parents need the right tools to make the best choices for their children, and IFF’s interactive map is one of those tools.

July 1, 2014

What’s in a name?

Normandy rose

That which we call an unaccredited school by any other name would perform as well.  William Shakespeare spoke of roses, but his four-century-old logic applies to Normandy Schools Collaborative’s “nonaccredited” status.  The Missouri State Board of Education’s decision to give Normandy a “nonaccredited status” allowed the Board to take control of operations.  It essentially gave the district a do-over, but left many with questions concerning the legality of subsequent decisions:

  1. Can the Missouri State School Board set a tuition ceiling?
  2. Can receiving schools reject transfer students?
  3. Can Normandy prohibit new students from transferring?

These questions stem from the transfer law’s wording regarding unaccredited schools.   The law refers to a “district not accredited”.  According to the state board, Normandy’s new unclassified status of “nonaccredited” is somehow different than “unaccredited” (even though, non is Latin for not, non making this up).  Because of the new classification, schools like Francis Howell decided not to allow transfer students to return.   Using the same rationale, Normandy Schools Collaborative might not receive extra money from the 2015 state budget.  The additional funding is earmarked for intensive reading instruction and pre-K programs, programs meant to help low-performing, unaccredited schools like Normandy.

Normandy has a history of low-performance—low-achievement, high drop-out rates, and low college readiness.  If the goal of the state Board of Education is to give Normandy students access to high-performing, quality schools, calling the district by another name is not the answer.

June 26, 2014

Allowing Normandy Students To Return Makes Sense To The Head And The Heart

A Joint Statement From Adolphus M. Pruitt and James V. Shuls

In the fall of 2013, students from the unaccredited Normandy School District stepped out in faith. They placed their hope and trust in the hands of nearby schools, sometimes more than 20 miles away from home. Over the course of the past year, these students have overcome great obstacles to get to school in their search for better educational opportunities. Now, area school leaders have a decision to make. They can choose to honor the decisions and sacrifices of these students or they can choose to deny them access to the schools they have worked so hard to attend.

It seems clear what the decision should be.

Financially, the transfer program is a winning proposition for accredited school districts. In most cases, the transfer students – even with the lower $7,200 tuition rate that the State Board of Education set – bring more money to the district than a student moving into the district would generate. Schools are funded primarily through local property taxes and state appropriations. The local property taxes are essentially fixed, they don’t rise when one new student moves into an apartment complex, and the state provides every area school district less than $7,200 per student. Most, in fact, receive less than $2,000 per pupil from the state.

Furthermore, the $7,200 is more than enough to cover the marginal cost of an additional student. That is, it does not cost a district $7,200 to add one student to an existing classroom. As the schools have demonstrated over the past year, they have the capacity to accept and educate these students. Few have needed to hire additional teachers or faculty. They simply have been able to assimilate the students into the day-to-day operations of the school. For many schools, it simply has been business as usual.

This decision, however, is not just about the bottom line. It is a decision that has a direct impact on students themselves. We recognize that most educators enter the profession because they want to make a difference in the lives of students. This is an opportunity to do just that.

Students transferring from the unaccredited Normandy School District are among the most disadvantaged students in the state. In Normandy, nearly half of the students will not graduate on time and among those who do, their future prospects are slim. With an average ACT score of 16.8, many of these students cannot even get into state colleges and universities.

Educators – teachers, principals, and superintendents – throughout the area have an opportunity to change these statistics for the transfer students. They have the opportunity to make a difference.

As representatives of the Saint Louis chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Show-Me Institute, a free-market think tank, it is not often that we find ourselves in complete agreement on an issue. On this, we stand in unity. Local school districts should reward the hard work and sacrifice of these students. Allowing them to return is a decision that makes sense to the head and to the heart.

Adolphus M. Pruitt is 1st vice president of the Missouri NAACP and president of the Saint Louis NAACP. James V. Shuls, Ph.D., is the director of education policy at the Show-Me Institute. 


Joe Knodell – Executive Director, Missouri Education Reform Roundtable

Courtney Allen Curtis – Missouri State Representative (D – 73)

June 20, 2014

Transfer Decisions Begging For A Lawsuit?

Carla Hargrove

Recent decisions that the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the State Board of Education have made raise some real questions about their ability to read the law.

First, the State Board of Education voted to remove the transfer right from any student who did not attend class in the Normandy School District in 2012-13, relegating at least 130 students who had transferred back to the struggling district. Yesterday, it was announced that DESE has instituted new regulations that impose the same restrictions on new transfers from the Riverview Gardens School District. Both of these decisions are begging for a lawsuit.

I’m thinking specifically about Carla, a parent from the Riverview Gardens School District who applied to transfer her children this year. She has lived within the district for some time, but realized that the schools were not where she wanted to send her children. Through hard work and sacrifice, she has been able to put her children in a private school. Now, she is being punished for that decision.

Carla and the hundreds of other families like her are being singled out unnecessarily and possibly in violation of the law. This is a true injustice and it should be corrected.

June 19, 2014

The Transfer Program – Curbing The Decade-Long Drop In Enrollment?

sold home

According to data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, enrollment in the Normandy School District has been dropping for years. The district has been losing approximately 122 students per year and has 1,100 fewer students than it did in 2004. That is with the influx of students the district received when it absorbed nearly 600 students from Wellston in 2010.

The Normandy School District has some of the worst academic results in the state. About half of Normandy students fail to graduate high school on time. Among those who do, the prospects are slim. The average ACT score for Normandy students is just 16.8. That is not high enough to gain admittance to most state universities. On top of that, the district’s property tax rate of $6.3974 per $100 of assessed valuation is among the highest in the state. That is $1.50 per $100 higher than the average Saint Louis County school district.

Despite these facts, there seems to be a force strong enough to get 130 students to move into the district – the school transfer law.

As I explained yesterday on the blog, I don’t really believe that all of these families moved into the district simply to take advantage of the program. Normandy Superintendent Ty McNichols seems to believe a slight uptick in occupancy permits proves otherwise.

Let’s just assume for argument’s sake that he is correct. Let’s assume that all 130 students who had not attended Normandy schools in the 2012-13 school year moved into the district simply to transfer to a better school. That would mean that now the families of those 130 students are paying property taxes on their homes or through the rent payments in the Normandy School District. It would mean the transfer program is helping to curb the decade-long trend of families fleeing the Normandy area. These are good things.

The fact that some individuals may be willing to move to take advantage of the transfer program is not an indictment of the program. Rather, it demonstrates how important educational choice is for families.

Why Not Charter Schools In Normandy?

School Icon

After years of paying taxes in a school district that failed them, the Normandy community deserves quality schools that will address the needs of each individual student. Charter schools will do just that.

Statistics show that charter schools help urban students. One recent study found that charter high school enrollment increased the probability of graduating within five years by 7 to 11 percentage points. Another working paper looked at students six years after being admitted into a charter school. Lottery winners (those who were admitted into the school) scored higher on national math and reading achievement tests than non-lottery winners. The study also found that female lottery winners were 12.1 percent less likely to report unplanned pregnancies.

While there is evidence supporting the implementation of charter schools, the Missouri State School Board voted Monday to give Normandy Schools Collaborative a non-accredited status. Now, it is unclear whether charter schools will be allowed to open due to uncertainties regarding the state’s charter law.

According to the Missouri Charter Public School Association (MCPSA), the following questions must be answered:

1. With a non-accreditation status, could the new Normandy Schools Collaborative Board sponsor, or partner with a current sponsor, establishing a quality charter public school in Normandy?

2. Could an existing accredited school district choose to sponsor, or partner with a current sponsor, establishing a charter public school in Normandy?

Although the answers to these questions are unclear, it is clear that charter schools provide another option to a community that is desperate for choice. I hope for the sake of Normandy parents whose only “choice” is Normandy Schools Collaborative, these questions are answered sooner than later.

May 29, 2014

I Feel Like I’m Taking Crazy Pills


On May 16, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial board invoked the historic Brown vs. the Board of Education case in a diatribe against lawmakers and the bogeyman (Rex Sinquefield). Members of the editorial board are disappointed, to say the least, with how Missouri Senate Bill 493 – the “transfer fix” – turned out. Namely, they are concerned that cutting transportation for students who transfer to other districts will limit choices. They also suggested, “The transfer fix was supposed to determine a fair amount of tuition for the sending districts to pay to the receiving districts.” Senate Bill 493, they claim, did not do that.

With all of the blame that the paper’s editorial board dished out, I was a bit surprised to find that they did not mention the real culprits standing in the way of these legislative fixes – the education establishment. In a letter to the editor, I pointed this out:

From the outset, the education lobby — the strongest lobby in the state — has fought to limit the number of students transferring out of unaccredited school districts. Thanks to lobbyists from the Missouri Association of School Administrators, the Missouri School Boards Association, and a bevy of other education groups, Senate Bill 493 was never about providing options for students. It was about neutering the transfer law.

Apparently, the editors did not take notice of my letter. Yesterday, they once again attacked lawmakers and the bogeyman. They added Kate Casas, of the Children’s Education Council of Missouri and StudentsFirst, to their list of malcontents. Yet they once again failed to mention the education lobby.

Let’s think about it for a minute. The two major problems the Post-Dispatch editors have with the bill, besides the private option, are transportation and tuition. Who would lobby to cut transportation funds? Who would lobby to keep the tuition high or not count transferring students’ test scores? I doubt any lawmaker came up with these ideas on his or her own.

Did the bogeyman, Kate Casas, or StudentsFirst suggest cutting transportation funding? Did they fight to keep tuition high?


As far as these two issues go, I’m on the same page as the editorial board. In my testimony before the Missouri House Education Committee, I suggested a simple method for calculating a lower tuition. I also noted that the bill removed transportation and suggested creating a fund to pay for the expense.

If you think about this objectively, the only conclusion is that the education establishment is to blame for the major problems in Senate Bill 493.

May 21, 2014

Normandy Schools Collaborative Offers Hope


Yesterday, the Missouri State Board of Education voted to lapse the Normandy School District. What exactly this means for the district and students, especially transfer students, remains to be seen. What we know at this point is that the district boundaries will stay the same, the district will be known as the Normandy Schools Collaborative, an appointed board will replace the elected board, and all contracts will be void.

Some have asked me if this is a good move. I have to say, “Compared to what?”

Let’s consider two scenarios.

Scenario 1: The Transfer Law Never Went Into Effect

The problems in the Normandy School District did not begin when a quarter of the students abandoned ship last fall. The district received its first accreditation designation in 1996 – provisional. For the past 18 years, the district has never been fully accredited. The four-year graduation rate for males is less than 50 percent.  In 2013, the district received an 11.1 percent on the Missouri School Improvement Program Annual Report (MSIP 5).

When the problems from Normandy began to spill into other districts, the public began to take notice.

If the transfer law had not taken effect, Normandy would probably continue to trudge along unaffected for another decade without any significant reforms.

Scenario 2: Normandy School District Remains Unchanged

Whether Missouri Senate Bill 493 passes or not, the Normandy School District must continue to make adjustments, especially in regards to staffing. This has been a tough year for the district financially. The transfer program came as a sudden shock and the district did not have time to prepare. Normally, a business losing a quarter of its customers would make immediate and deep cuts. This was problematic for a district locked into long-term contracts and collective bargaining agreements.

If the district were to continue to operate under the current or SB 493 version of the transfer law, they would still have to deal with these realities. Essentially, they would be forced to adapt without having the freedom to adapt.


We still do not know all the details of the new Normandy Schools Collaborative plan; but given these two alternative scenarios, the new plan looks immeasurably better. If the State Board of Education appoints a board that is willing to make substantial changes to the way the district operates, this could be a very positive reform.

May 19, 2014

Reflecting On 2014 Education Legislation


As I reflect on the 2014 Missouri legislative session, it is easy to get caught up in what could have been. I would have loved for the transfer fix to have resulted in a school choice law that significantly expanded opportunities for students. That was not to be the case. Still, the Missouri Legislature did do some good things.

Last year, opponents of Common Core were not able to get any legislation passed. Not even a bill requiring public meetings on the matter. This year, lawmakers passed a Common Core bill with overwhelming bipartisan support. The bill does not repeal Common Core, but does make the repeal possible. The bill calls for convening work groups to evaluate Missouri’s education standards. The result could be a new set of standards or the groups could end up adopting Common Core. More importantly, the bill will make it impossible for a new set of learning standards to be foisted upon Missourians without the public’s knowledge.

The legislature also took a small step in the right direction on teacher licensing. With the passage of Senate Bill 782, the legislature created a new pathway to the classroom for prospective elementary school teachers. Now, individuals can obtain certification to teach elementary school from the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (ABCTE). ABCTE already offers teacher certification in several middle and high school subjects. This reduces barriers to entering the teaching profession, making it easier for mid-career professionals to switch careers. Thus far, studies of ABCTE teachers have been pretty positive.

This simple expansion of pathways to the classroom will not lead to a systematic change, but it is a great piece of legislation. It is simple, to the point (about four lines of text), and reduces unnecessary barriers to entering the teaching profession.

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