January 20, 2015

Kansas City Public Schools Embraces Charter Education

On Wednesday, the Kansas City Public Schools (KCPS) Board of Education voted to submit an application to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to sponsor a charter school.

Kansas City currently has 25 charter schools, enrolling more than 40 percent of all public school students in the city. Last year, KCPS decided to partner with Academie Lafayette, the French immersion charter school, on a program at Southwest High School. However, none of the existing schools have been sponsored by the district itself. This is the first step in the district becoming a sponsor of charter schools. It will be the second school district in the state to do so—Saint Louis Public Schools sponsors Construction Careers Academy.

Since their inception, charters often have been met with suspicion by public school officials. In Kansas City, it seems that perception is changing as the district recognizes that charter schools may have something traditional public schools need—niche educational opportunities.

Charter schools are independently run and typically have more freedom. This gives them the flexibility to reach students whose needs aren’t being met in the traditional setting. For example, a Pennsylvania public school district sponsored the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School in 2001. The virtual school now enrolls 3,000 students across the state and grade levels.

The sponsorship of charter schools by traditional public schools is an opportunity public school districts throughout the state should not pass up. It is the competitive advantage to offer more options within one school district. Imagine if a rural or suburban school district sponsored a charter with a science and engineering focus. Perhaps a student who felt his needs weren’t being met in a private school would enroll at the local charter school instead.

Students in any type of district, whether urban or rural, low-income or high-income, need options. Educational partnerships and traditional public school sponsorships have the potential to provide those options.

Puerto Rico: A Transportation Privatization Example for Missouri

With its reputation for tourism, rum, and sun, many might be surprised to find out that Puerto Rico actually is a leader of using the private sector to improve infrastructure under tight fiscal constraints.

Puerto Rico has entered a privatization boom in the last few years, due mostly to past financial mismanagement. Both the port authority (which owns Luis Munoz Marin International Airport) and the Puerto Rico Highways and Transportation Authority (which is responsible for highways and transit) spent heavily in past decades on projects like the Tren Urbano, a $2.25 billion rail line with low ridership and large operating deficits. After the financial crisis hit, Puerto Rico’s transportation authorities had large debt problems and a transportation system in need of investment.

To simultaneously reduce debt and raise capital for transportation improvements, the government privatized major transportation assets. In 2011, Puerto Rico leased two of its toll roads, PR-5 and PR-22, to Autopistas Metropolitanas de Puerto Rico, LLC. The company paid the government $1.1 billion upfront and agreed to make $350 million in capital improvements.

In 2013, Puerto Rico leased Luis Munoz Marin International Airport, the island’s largest, to Highstar Capital and Grupo Aeroportuario del Sureste SAB de CV, the first such lease of a large airport in the United States. The consortium agreed to pay more than $600 million upfront, along with additional yearly payments. The good news for travelers is that the consortium plans to invest over a billion dollars modernizing what can be a hectic airport.

Aside from major privatization deals, Puerto Rico (in contrast to other U.S. cities) continues to rely heavily on the private sector to operate public transportation. In fact, the most popular form of transit on the island are publicos, small vans and buses that cover much of the island’s metropolitan areas. Publicos are privately owned, and the system has the distinction of being the only primary bus system of a large U.S. city that uses almost no public subsidies. San Juan’s municipal bus system, which operates large city buses, also leverages the private sector by contracting out the operation of its buses to a private company, First Transit.

Missourians should take two major lessons from Puerto Rico’s experience. First, the private sector is capable of maintaining transportation infrastructure. The commonwealth’s largest airport, toll roads, and public transportation system are privately operated. Second, the private sector can provide significant capital for improvements. The lease of Puerto Rico’s toll roads and airport netted $1.7 billion in upfront payments and commitments for an additional $1.35 billion in infrastructure improvements. Missouri residents should learn from Puerto Rico’s example and explore areas where the private sector can help the state improve transportation. Missouri would be better off if these options were explored before the next funding or debt crisis.

January 15, 2015

Missouri Ranks 33rd on New Quality Counts Report

c-minus

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.

January 14, 2015

School Visit Series: A Charter School With a Goal

The South Building of Ewing Marion Kauffman School in Kansas City looks much more like a new academic building than a charter school serving low-income middle-school students. Streams of natural light flood the high-ceilinged lobby. On the wall next to the entrance is a portrait of the school’s late benefactor paired with the former Kansas City Royals owner’s quote, “You, you, and every one of you can go to college if you choose.”

kauffman entrance

Kauffman’s goal to “create college graduates” pervades the three-building campus. University flags hang on the walls. Students are divided into groups named after the universities teaching faculty attended. Teachers connect with students by sharing personal photographs, fight songs, and university traditions from their own college years. “It continues to invest kids in this idea that the people around you want you to have the same opportunities as they had and we don’t want socioeconomic status or zip code to hold you back from that,” said Candace Potter, talent recruiter for the school.

flags

“Kids who grow up in low-income communities, about 10 percent graduate from college by the age of 24 … and we want to break that statistic,” she added. The school seems to be on its way.

Though 82.4 percent of students are eligible for free-reduced lunch, Kauffman earned 88.6 percent of possible points on the state’s Annual Progress Report. This means the charter is only 1.4 percentage points from being classified as Accredited with Distinction, which is stunning considering, according to Potter, most students begin below grade level.

One of those students is fifth-grader Aunecia Smith. She reports both her behavior and academics have improved since arriving at Kauffman, having previously attended George Melcher Elementary, a Kansas City public school. “It’s really not like this school. Their expectations weren’t as good,” she said.

Aside from rigorous academic expectations, the school invests in four PREP values, which serve as “current and future tools for success.” At frequent awards ceremonies, students are recognized with “PREP stars.” Aunecia, who wants to be a pediatrician when she grows up, has received two. “I have to change the channel on the TV when I see kids with cancer,” she said.

Quality charter schools like Ewing Marion Kauffman exemplify how school choice can set students on the course for success. Aunecia is just one student for which a charter school has made a difference, but if charters were able to expand regardless of district accreditation status or geographic location, many more students might be affected.

Before heading back to class, Aunecia said to me, “Every kid should go to a charter school.” I think what Aunecia really means is that every child should have access to the type of high-quality education she is receiving.

January 13, 2015

School Choice, Let Me Be Me

Where did you go to high school?

“The question” is as much a part of the Saint Louis identity as the Gateway Arch, Cardinals baseball, or Gooey Butter Cake. Last year, I decided that I’d take a stand against high school-based judgments by asking a question myself: What high school do you think I attended?

From there, it got interesting. “Ladue, Incarnate Word, Lafayette” are just a few school names that I heard. The variety and wide range of schools was interesting to hear, but no one came close to the school I actually attended. The truth is that I graduated from an often-underperforming, low-income public high school just below the Saint Louis City line. In 2013, only 20 percent of graduates had completed a four-year degree, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

For many students who attend a high school within their zip code, their school often is not a reflection of who they are. They must fit in, instead of choosing a school that fits. With school choice, a high school becomes less of a description about where the student lives and how much money the student’s family has, and more about what makes the student unique.

Join us in Saint Louis or Kansas City to learn more about how educational options allow students to be themselves. If you plan on attending, use the hashtag, #letmebeme, for all event-related tweets.

 

January 9, 2015

Thoughts on the Latest Rams Press Conference

With the recent news that Rams owner Stan Kroenke is planning to build a new football stadium, the chances of the Rams leaving Saint Louis have increased substantially. Late last year, Gov. Nixon appointed a two-person team whose mission was to investigate options for keeping the NFL in Saint Louis. The team, which consists of former Anheuser-Busch executive Dave Peacock and Clayton area attorney Bob Blitz, presented their report on Friday. Below are key points raised in that report:

  • Plans are for a new stadium located on the riverfront, north of Lumiere Casino and northeast of the Edward Jones Dome.

Stadium2.0

  • The stadium also would be available for professional soccer.
  • It would be a public asset owned by a public entity and leased to the team. Also, the new stadium would come with a new lease, 30 years or more.
  • Cost estimate: $860-$985 million, at least half of which would be privately financed (minimum $200 million from Stan Kroenke and another $200 million from the NFL).
  • No new tax burden, although there would be public money involved.
  • Estimated completion date: 2020.

After listening to the press conference and going over some of the points raised here, I have my misgivings about this project. First, I would like to know specifically where the money is coming from to pay for this new stadium. During the press conference, Peacock said that the sources of public financing would not be ascertained until there was a commitment from the NFL and from the Rams on moving forward with this project. Second, the $860-$985 million price tag would only be for the new stadium. Additional money (it wasn’t said how much) would be needed to upgrade the current Dome so it will be a full-time convention center. How are we going to pay for that as well?

My biggest misgiving is the fact that we will be publicly subsidizing this thing at all. Kroenke’s proposal in Los Angeles would be completely privately financed. Why should the public put up money when Kroenke can afford to pay for the costs himself? The most recent trend in stadium construction is toward private investment. That’s what happened in San Francisco and New York, so why should Saint Louis be different?

I know it is easy to be wowed by beautiful pictures of sparkling developments like the one above. Yet, nice pictures aside, these kinds of plans do not produce the economic benefits that would make these developments worthwhile. I want Saint Louis to remain an NFL town, but I don’t want to spend taxpayer dollars to do it.

Should Missouri Use an A Through F System to Grade Public Schools?

restaurant-ratings-abc-1031

The practice of grading organizations using an A through F grading scale has been utilized by many types of industries. This legislative session, elected officials will decide if the system is right for Missouri’s public schools. Senate Bill 28 “requires the State Board of Education to develop a simplified annual school report card for each school attendance center using a letter grade of A to F.”

To understand Missouri’s current accountability system, the MSIP-5, a parent must first have access to the Internet. The Comprehensive Guide can be located using the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) website. Navigating the site is notoriously difficult, especially for a first-time user. Once the document is found, the parent must read through 104 pages of confusing tables and formulas just to, hopefully, understand the accreditation process on page 56.

The table below shows Missouri’s accreditation scheme. Although there are only four categories, words like “partially accredited” are not intuitively associated with the word “underperforming,” as the letters C and D are.

accreditation

To gain a different perspective, imagine if restaurants were evaluated using the MSIP-5—“How about dinner at Barcelona in Clayton? It got an APR of 73; oh, but its MPI was Floor.” Simply saying the restaurant has three and half stars on YELP indicates the restaurant is good, but perhaps some have had a not-so-good experience.

Our familiarity with letter grades, stars, and even “$$” provides us with simple indications of the type of service we should expect to receive. States such as Florida, Oklahoma, and Indiana have developed similar A through F school grading schemes. Some criticisms state that the systems are “oversimplified” or “have arbitrary cutoffs.” With any system, including the MSIP-5, there may be questionable cutoff points.

Ultimately, an A through F grading scale would allow parents a better understanding of what a school offers, turning them into more effective consumers of educational services.

 

 

January 8, 2015

Streetcars Continue to Fail

In September we highlighted the problems with streetcar cost overruns in Charlotte, North Carolina. Now it appears streetcar efforts are collapsing everywhere. According to POLITICO:

From D.C. to Atlanta, from San Antonio to Salt Lake City, streetcar projects have run into delays, cutbacks and other snags, and some have been scrapped altogether. The most dramatic recent example was November’s demise of a $550 million, state-aided streetcar project in the liberal, traditionally pro-transit D.C. suburb of Arlington County, Va., which had turned politically toxic as its price tag more than doubled. (DOT rejected an application for federal funds for that project, but supporters believed a second attempt would succeed.)

The project in Arlington, Virginia, has come to a complete stop because of problems. This is noteworthy because the region was held up as a positive example by streetcar booster Councilman Russ Johnson at the two-mile starter line’s groundbreaking. According to POLITICO:

In D.C., the H Street line is three years late in opening, marred by missteps like a test run in which the streetcar had to stand still for 15 minutes while an ambulance blocked its path. This fall, the District cut the size of its planned streetcar network from 20 miles to eight miles.

Kansas City voters wisely rejected a streetcar expansion effort in November, but city leaders seem intent on putting it on the ballot again. If city leadership won’t listen to voters, perhaps they will heed their peers around the country who are rethinking their positions.

Equal Opportunity Scholarships—Giving Students Options

boy-2

If you could expand educational opportunities for students in failing schools by leveraging greater private investment in education, would you do it? Of course you would! This is exactly the idea behind the Equal Opportunity Scholarship idea (otherwise known as a tax credit scholarship).

The way it works is pretty simple. Taxpayers donate money to a scholarship organization. In exchange for their donation, they get a credit toward their taxes. Let’s say the credit is 75 percent. That would mean a donation of $1,000 to a scholarship organization would net a credit toward tax liabilities of $750. While the total taxes collected drops by $750, the total amount contributed goes up. The end result is greater private investment in education.

With the funds, the scholarship organizations provide tuition assistance for students who wish to attend high-quality private schools. More than a dozen states have similar programs. They are a proven method of increasing options for students. And they have the added benefit of saving taxpayers money. The Show-Me Institute has highlighted successful examples in Arizona, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania.

Over the next few months, Missouri lawmakers will bandy about ideas to “solve” the problem of unaccredited schools. Thus far, Equal Opportunity Scholarships are the only proactive idea that will expand options for Missouri students.

January 7, 2015

What Do Home Care Union Executives Really Want: A Wage Increase for Their Workers or a Union Contract?

residentialworker1On Christmas week, while many Missourians were exchanging presents or grabbing Chinese food, members of the Missouri Home Care Union were hard at work lobbying the governor. Ostensibly seeking higher pay for the home care attendants the union represents, the union placed carolers outside the governor’s mansion singing Christmas songs with lyrics altered to convey their message. Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” became “I’m Dreaming of a Fair Governor,” and St. Louis Public Radio captured union members singing several bars of “home care workers are coming to town.”

The odd thing about this press junket is that the governor wants to give home care workers the pay increase the union is asking for, but the union objects to the method the governor proposes to give home care workers this pay bump. From the governor’s Office of Administration:

“The governor supports the wage range provision of the labor agreement between the Missouri Quality Home Care Council and the Missouri Home Care Union that provides a pay raise for home health care workers. To ensure the wage range provision of the agreement has the full force and effect of the law, the administration will be implementing the wage range recommendation through an administrative rule.”

Jeff Mazur, executive director of the union, responded by calling the governor’s proposal to enact the pay raise “unnecessary and unwise.” It appears union executives like Mazur are really after a governor’s order implementing a collective bargaining agreement. We’ve seen this before in other states.

Home health care unions, like the Missouri Home Care Union, formed to represent home care attendants who received Medicaid funding for acting as a personal assistant of a person in need of care. In many states, such as Illinois and Michigan, once home care unions were formed, they negotiated a union contract that forced all home care workers to pay a portion of their check to the union, whether or not the worker wanted union representation.

Imagine you’re enrolled in Missouri’s home care program and you’re getting a check from the government to help offset the cost of taking care of a disabled relative. Now imagine that the state bound you to a union contract against your will, and a portion of your check is going to union executives and their pet political causes.

Governor Nixon is right to be cautious of the union’s demands. If Missouri is better off increasing payments to people enrolled in the home care program, it can do so without entering a collective bargaining agreement. Such collective bargaining agreements can have bad consequences for the home care assistants subject to them, who often cannot afford to have their benefits tapped into by a union that they do not support.

Fuel Prices Falling, Along With Planners’ Expectations

gas station-300x192At the time this was written, the average price for a regular gallon of gas in Missouri was $1.859. The price at the same time last year was $3.018. Fuel prices falling nearly 40 percent over 12 months is an unexpected windfall for Missouri families, with a hypothetical household getting an extra 2.75 percent raise off of savings at the pump. It is also likely to mean lower prices for nearly all goods and services, as lower fuel prices mean items can be produced and delivered for less.

While low fuel prices may give an unexpected boost to the economy at-large, they confound the expectations of city and state planners. Whether the source is the Mid-America Regional Council (MARC) (the Kansas City area planning agency), the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT), or East-West Gateway (the Saint Louis regional planning agency), they all expected rising fuel prices to continue into the future. For example, in MoDOT’s October 2014 Financial Snapshot, they figured gas would average $3.26 in the upcoming year.

None of this is to blame these agencies for failing to predict future gas prices. The price of oil is historically volatile, and few predicted prices to fall as they have. What these government bodies should be faulted for is using what was at best an educated guess about the direction of gas prices as a standard plank in their arguments for billions of dollars of state and local investment in alternative transportation and restrictive land-use policies. For example, MoDOT used the trend in fuel prices as part of its argument that they needed the ability to fund billion-dollar passenger rail lines as well as support urban transit. MARC predicted that rising gas prices, along with other trends, would “demand for more walkable, transit-friendly development closer in.” This is part of their reasoning for recommending regional densification and urban refill.

Regional planners have consistently made the argument that citizens will increasingly use public transportation and live in denser environments, due in part to more expensive fuel. But instead of waiting for these markets to materialize and responding to steadily rising needs, residents are asked to spend billions today to meet uncertain demand down the road. What the precipitous fall in oil prices should remind us is that long-term predictions can be mistaken. While the estimates themselves may be prudent, using them to speculate with public dollars is not.

January 6, 2015

Enforcing Macks Creek Law: Progress in Saint Louis County

Last month, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster sued 13 cities in Saint Louis County for violating Macks Creek Law, which caps the portion of a city’s general revenue that can be derived from traffic fines to 30 percent. This action, along with a separate state audit of the municipal courts in Bella Villa, Saint Ann, Pine Lawn, and Ferguson, is a positive step toward more active enforcement of state law in Missouri.

Of the cities named in the lawsuit, only four (Bellerive Acres, Moline Acres, Normandy, and Vinita Terrace) were sued for actually exceeding the 30 percent cap. The other cities have been cited for failing to meet reporting requirements or using improper methods of recording fees as a percentage of revenue. For example, one city divided the fines it received in six months by total revenue for the entire year, in what appears a very ham-fisted attempt to show compliance with the law. The chart below, with data from Better Together, shows the portion of revenue from fines that each city named in the lawsuit collects.

mls

This lawsuit may be a step in the right direction, but it is only one step. As we pointed out in a previous blog post, there are at least five other cities not listed in this lawsuit that have more than 30 percent of their revenue coming from fines and fees. Among these are Calverton Park and Bella Villa, which collect more than 50 percent of their revenue from fines. These municipalities may be within the law, but state confirmation of this seems prudent.

munilaw

Furthermore, many cities in Saint Louis County, while perhaps not in violation of the law, are still collecting very large portions of their revenue through fines. Twelve municipalities, mostly in North Saint Louis County, collect between 20 and 30 percent of their revenue from fines. In most municipalities, this percentage is less than 15 percent. The state could lower the cap on fines in the Macks Creek Law to further protect state residents from law enforcement acting as tax collectors.

But as the current situation demonstrates, it matters little if fines are capped at 30 percent, 25 percent, or 15 percent of general revenue if the state does not enforce existing law. The state clearly has not done this in the past, and without the tragic events in North Saint Louis County and subsequent scrutiny of city policing tactics, who knows how long it would have taken for Macks Creek Law to be enforced? The state could benefit from a more systematic, not crisis driven, approach to statutory oversight.

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