Researcher Profile Podcast: James Shuls
Marty Lueken interviews James Shuls about his journey into school choice research and what he's working on now
In this episode of EdChoice Chats, our Director of Fiscal Policy and Analysis Marty Lueken interviews James Shuls, a school choice researcher and EdChoice fellow about what brought him to school choice and his current research.
Our Podcast Transcribed
Marty Lueken: Hi there. I’m Marty Lueken, EdChoice’s director of fiscal policy and analysis. In this episode of EdChoice Chats, we’re back with another researcher profile. In these episodes, we like to introduce our listeners to some of the great minds on the economic side of school choice, what brought them into this corner of the policy world, what research do they have in the pipeline, as well as what challenges that they think the world of school choice research is facing. Today, I’m in the studio with James Shuls. He is currently serving as the graduate program director and assistant professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. Not only that, but James is also one of our EdChoice Fellows. Thanks for joining me today, James.
James Shuls: Hey, it’s great to be with you, Marty.
Marty Lueken: James, let’s first start off, if you wouldn’t mind, introducing yourself and telling us a little about what brought you into the K–12 space, education reform, and the school choice space.
James Shuls: The first thing that brought me to the K–12 space was a yellow school bus. No, sorry. You did a lot of introduction there, but one of the things that you didn’t say was that I was a former public school teacher. I went to college to be a teacher. Actually, I went to be a coach. I wanted to coach soccer, but then when I was there I had this advisor who said, “You shouldn’t be a PE teacher, you should be an elementary teacher. You’re a male, you can get any job you want as a male elementary teacher,” which may sound sexist to some people but is absolutely true because we don’t have very many male elementary teachers. I switched my major, became an elementary school teacher, was teaching in southwest Missouri, started working my master’s program.
As I looked around at education, I started seeing what I called these systemic problems in education. Like all teachers, I went into the field, I went into the profession, because I wanted to make a difference. You ask almost any teacher, they’re going to tell you that. Some teacher made a difference in their lives, or they want to make a difference in someone else’s life. That’s the primary motivation, I think, for most teachers. I know it was for me. But I get in the classroom, and I start seeing that some of these problems are bigger. I can impact 20, 25 kids in my classroom, but there are some of these issues that we need systematic reform for. We need school-wide reform. We need state-wide reform for some of these issues.
It started making me think about doctoral programs. Call it luck. Call it God; call it a divine appointment. I don’t know what it was, but I’m walking through Barnes and Noble one day, I see this interesting red and green book called Education Myths written by Jay Greene. I said I was in southwest Missouri, just so happens Jay Greene is starting a new doctoral program at the University of Arkansas just a couple hours away. The rest, they say, is history. I moved, started the doctoral program, and it really got me prepared to start thinking and writing more deeply about these issues that I had seen from the classroom.
Marty Lueken: Well, we went through the same program together. It was a-
James Shuls: It must have been a good one, huh?
Marty Lueken: It was a good time, and it was fun, for sure. What are some of the issues, were there any particular issues that moved you, that spurred you to think this way and change direction?
James Shuls: Well, one thing. I was a fifth grade teacher. I started out first grade, and then I moved and taught fifth grade. My fifth grade class, my students started asking me during music time if they could stay in my classroom, instead of going to music. “Can we stay in your classroom? We’ll wash your microwave for you.” I always cooked with my microwave. “We’ll wash the board, we’ll wash your microwave.”
They would beg to clean my room instead of going to music class, and I thought, “This is strange.” What fifth grade kid doesn’t like music? These kids are listening, at that time it was Taylor Swift was huge. I think she was still country at that point. But they’re listening to music all the time. They’re singing music all the time, and they hate music class. As I talked to them, I realized why they hated it, so I went to talk to my principal.
I said, “I don’t mean to be a tattletale. My kids hate going to music class.” He said, “James, so does every other kid in this school.” I said, “Well, why don’t you do something about it?” He said, “I can’t. She has tenure. She’s been here forever.”
That type of issue, when I start looking around and seeing there are some terrible teachers. I think I was a pretty decent teacher, but there were some terrible teachers. Teachers recognize this too, and yet nobody was doing anything about it. I realized there’s a problem with this tenure system. There’s a problem with the structure of education. We’ve got to do something about this. That was one of the main things that started pushing me towards thinking about education policy, thinking about these things more broadly. Can I tell you another, a different story?
Marty Lueken: Sure, yeah. Go ahead.
James Shuls: Since we’re at EdChoice, we’re talking about school choice, I’ll tell you that for some reason at this time period, I started thinking too about kids being assigned to schools and why I thought that it was inappropriate to be assigned to schools. You should be able to choose the school you want your kids to go to, and all this sort of stuff. At the same time, my school district got involved in a lawsuit in the state, and was suing the state over funding. The district that I lived in, which was a different district from where I worked, was also suing the state. I wrote a letter to the editor about the lawsuit, saying that it was wrong for our school district to be using tax dollars to sue the state.
Well, the superintendent in that district sent it to my superintendent, who then called me into her office. Here I was, I think probably my second year teaching, getting called to the superintendent’s office to defend my views that I’d written in a paper.
I have to say, my superintendent was very nice and professional, but in that conversation we started debating all of these issues around school finance and around choice, and I remember her asking me, or saying something about how terrible school choice was. At that time, I was unversed. I hadn’t read Milton Friedman’s stuff. I didn’t know much about school choice.
Out of nowhere, I knew this argument, like, “How would you feel if you were assigned to a grocery store?” which is one of our classic arguments for school choice. How would you feel if you were assigned to a grocery store, and knew that there were better grocery stores in the next town, and you couldn’t go to them because you weren’t allowed to go there? She pushed back on me.
But it was one of those conversations where I really started … There are those moments where you start fermenting, or I don’t that’s the right word. You start really thinking through your views. It was at that time where I was like, I really knew that I was supportive of school choice.
At that point, I was still a first grade teacher in southwest Missouri where we had no school choice, and I knew that students should have that option.
Marty Lueken: Yeah, yeah. What if we were assigned to higher ed institutions? You and I probably would not be sitting here. But here you are. Not in front of this mic, but in the education policy world doing research. Can you tell us about some of your research? Perhaps what you’ve done and perhaps what you’re working on now, or hoping to work on in the future?
James Shuls: I mean, a lot of the stuff I’m working on is related to school finance, and especially teacher pensions, which I know that you’re really interested in.
Marty Lueken: That’s true.
James Shuls: The issue for me around teacher pensions is looking at how teacher salaries impact their benefits. What I’ve been showing in my research is that the pension system favors richer districts. This is an equity issue, because richer districts have steeper salaries, steeper salary profiles. Over the years they give larger raises and pensions are typically based on your last three years. In the poorer districts, they tend to be relatively flat in their earnings profile, where they don’t give large raises.
If you worked for a career in a richer district or a poorer district, you would get more bang for your buck in the rich district than you would the poor district. I look at this, I think that there are some equity problems with the pension system. That’s a lot of my research has been around that, lately.
More germane, again, to EdChoice, I have this piece coming out in the Kansas Journal of Law and Policy thinking about school choice and school finance. I’m trying to blend my two worlds. One world is sort of school finance, and one world is school choice, the two things that I sort of love. I try to blend them together in this paper. I talk about how in school finance, one of the big issues is equity. We push for equity all the time. It’s not fair that some districts have a lot of money to spend and neighboring districts will have very little bit, and it’s all based on their property values. Equity is a paramount conversation in school finance.
Then, when we make arguments for school choice, we also make equity arguments. We say it’s not fair that people are defined by their ZIP Code. It’s not fair that poorer students have fewer educational options. We make an equity argument. Then, when we create a school choice program, we inherently create them inequitable. We create charter schools that don’t get facilities funds. We create voucher programs that get a fraction of the dollar amount that they would have gotten had they gone to public schools. When we create ESA or tax-credit scholarship programs, students are getting $2,000, I think, or slightly more than that on average, in one of these scholarship programs.
We create school choice programs inherently fiscally inequitable. As I argue in this paper, I say, “How can we start to think about school choice as also a solution to the financial equity piece?” I think, my ideas are still in their infancy stage, but I think this is where we can continue to push forward, push people’s thinking.
Marty Lueken: We have, for decades, we’ve built up the system that disadvantages certain groups, whether it’s groups of students, also how we compensate teachers, disadvantages certain groups of teachers. We penalize mobility, penalize career changers, not staying in the system for an entire career, and penalize young teachers. We have this system that’s pretty rigid, and that’s not adaptable, and highly inequitable.
Can school choice be a remedy, and if so how? Or at least part of the solution, perhaps not the solution.
James Shuls: Yeah. I mean, you look at education, and I think about almost all the problems we see, not all of them, but a lot of the problems we see in education are simply because we don’t have markets. We don’t have a pricing system. We don’t have the cues that typically come with markets, that show you how salaries and wages should rise, and tell you how the expenditures for schools should go up or down, or whatever. The problem, in my opinion, is a lack of markets. You think about teachers, salary which you mentioned.
I was, again, an elementary education major. I went to a small state college, nothing rigorous, nothing very … I mean, I love my school, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t like the Ivy Leagues here. When I took math in college, I had a course called College Algebra for Educators. You had the regular algebra class, and then you had the easier college algebra class called College Algebra for Educators. I’m not even lying, that was the name of the course. They did the same thing for physics. I graduate with my elementary education major, and then I go to look for a job, and I get a job in a district, and I’m making the exact same amount as the guy who got the physics degree from an Ivy League or a top tier university. That makes no sense, and the problem … and look at who applied for the job. When I applied for an elementary education job, there might have been 100 applications or more. You look at the physics job, there might have been three people who applied. And yet, they give us the same salary. That doesn’t make any sense.
The market would dictate that the person with the demanded skills gets paid more money. Why do have this persistent STEM problem? We’ve been talking about STEM for decades now. People have been pushing for STEM since, I don’t want to say the Coleman report, or A Nation at Risk. We’ve been pushing for STEM for decades, and we’ve made no headway. Well, look at the stupid things we do like paying physics teachers the same as we pay first grade teachers, when you have an oversupply of first grade teachers and not enough physics teachers.
This is what I’m talking about. The market could fix that problem. In the same way, school choice could start increasing the demand for teachers, where schools are actually recruiting teachers. You never see that in public education. I work with administrators, and you don’t see administrators scouting out the best talent to come to their schools, because you’re thought about it as a poacher, or stealing somebody else’s teachers. We need to get beyond that in education, and start realizing that the market is how we improve this, not just for teachers, but when we put these things in place, it also improves things for students.
Marty Lueken: Two audiences that are very important to us: policymakers and parents. What lessons should they take away from your work?
James Shuls: I don’t know, that’s a good question. I think what I just said, is that we need more markets. We need more choice and competition. We need more opportunities for individuals. This is even when you look at the pension stuff. When we have one rigid system that sets up specific rules and requirements, it creates unintended outcomes.
Nobody created the pension system thinking, “Hey, let’s really screw over the teachers in poor districts.” Nobody did that. The pension system was created because they wanted to ensure a secure retirement for individuals and an orderly retirement. We wanted to get those old birds out of the classroom.
You look back at the early documents, and these were the arguments that people were making. It was that we want old people to retire. We want them to leave, but we want them to be okay. We don’t want to kick Mrs. Johnson out of school when she turns 80 and not have a safety net. Those were the main arguments for pensions, but now, look what has happened.
Look at your work, or the work of Mike Podgursky and Bob Costrell. We see that the pension system is creating all kinds of other problems, these unintended consequences, negative externalities, use whatever … I was told earlier not to use those big words, so I apologize to any of the listeners. But what we’re seeing is negative things coming out of what was intended to be good.
In the same way, I look at the public education system. No one created the public education system. I shouldn’t say no one, there might have been someone out there. But for the most part, public education had really noble intentions. We wanted to serve individuals. We wanted to do it in an effective and efficient way. But then look what happened.
You put up artificial boundaries, which leads to segregation of individuals, haves and have nots of different races and the different places. By the unintended consequences of this system is that we have a school system that favors the wealthy, privileges them, and puts the poor in a disadvantaged place. I think maybe the overarching theme of everything is that our best intentions often go wrong, and a better solution is let the market work.
Marty Lueken: You’re pretty well published, academic journals, but you write a lot outside-
James Shuls: Not well enough. I need to get more.
Marty Lueken: You’re almost there at tenure. But you write a lot of op-eds, blog posts, things like that, so you’ve gotten your voice out there. We appreciate it. We’re glad that you’re getting your voice out there to shed some light on some of these issues, and further discussion. Just for a bit of fun, what has been your favorite post or op-ed to work on, and why?
James Shuls: That’s a good question. I don’t know what has been my favorite post. I’d have to think about it a bit more. I mean, there’s one that I wrote for EdChoice that you guys published, a blog post, thinking about how we get really good schools. I mean, all of the conversation that we have in school choice is almost always about bad schools. “Oh, we got to close bad schools. Oh, we got to save children from bad schools.” The truth is, even in bad schools, you oftentimes have many wonderful educators who are trying their hardest. All of our energy is spent on what we perceive as the really bad schools, but the truth is, what we all want is really good schools.
Marty Lueken: And they’re not all bad, to be clear. They’re just not a one size … It doesn’t work for everybody.
James Shuls: What I’m say is that’s the conversation, though. I go to testify in Jefferson City, Missouri quite regularly, and when I go talk about a school choice issue, the conversation is almost always about the students in the lowest performing school districts. Don’t get me wrong, I want to help students in disadvantaged places get more opportunities, but what I’m trying to say is that what we really want is more good schools. Because when we have more good schools, and when we have choice, the bad schools are going to close. We need to be thinking about how do we foster, how do we grow, great schools.
The piece that I wrote for EdChoice a while back was thinking about restaurants. In the town that I grew up in, you had the truck stop diner. You didn’t have any nice places. Most of education’s thinking around how do you get schools to be better is you put in place regulations and standards. The point that I made is, there is no regulation and standard you’re going to put on that truck stop diner to make it a five-star restaurant. That’s not going to happen. Yet, our policies tend to be trying to push for development through heavy handed regulation. But that’s not what works. Like those commercials, “That’s not how any of this works. That’s not how this works.”
The way we get the schools we want is through choice and competition. When you have a market, and people are choosing, then businesses get better and they improve. A new place opens because it fits the need. We have a lot of truckers in our area, so that’s why they needed it.
But where’s there’s a need and a desire for something, and people are able to choose it, things get better. That’s how you drive improvement, is fostering a market, not heavy handed regulations. That’s a piece I wrote that I think is really good, and something we need to do more thinking about.
Marty Lueken: Well, we’ll put a link up to that for our listeners. Can you tell us a bit about some of the challenges you see facing the school choice movement, and advocates, right now?
James Shuls: Yeah, well, that is a good question too. We see school choice is growing. It’s regularly growing. We see charter schools being added all the time. We see new private school choice programs, it seems like every year a new one is added. I do think that we are moving in a very good direction. I think that some of the concern, or where we’re going to see a lot of pushback, and I don’t know … I was going to say I don’t know the answer, but I kind of do, I think I do, is around these sort of social issues in private schools, or issues related to what private schools are teaching.
We see some outcry around private schools that are teaching creationism, or they’re not teaching evolution right, or they don’t have transgender bathroom policies. I think a lot of those issues are being brought up to … That seems like the new line of attack.
I don’t know if it’s new, but it’s a more prevalent line of attack against school choice policies. I think it’s something that people who are, I’m going to call myself an advocate for school choice, need to have a response to and an answer to, because those sorts of conversations and challenges are going to continue to come up.
Marty Lueken: I would agree with that. There have been, certainly, some new challenges, and big challenges, recently in that vein. What are some of the research gaps that you think, or informational gaps, for school choice? Is there any research that you think is missing right now, that would help inform how effective these programs are, or that could inform program design?
James Shuls: Well, I mean, I think a lot of researchers are stepping into the gap. The research for a long time was on academic outcomes. It was on test scores, immediate test score outcomes. We saw some benefits, then we saw some people saying there aren’t benefits, right?
There’s been more recently there are some studies suggesting that there aren’t academic benefits. Then people started, over time, looking at the long term, and now people are shifting to look at not just those academic benefits, but also the outcomes, like graduation from high school, graduation from college.
We’re now shifting into non-cognitive things, like grit or perseverance, or those sorts of things. I think a lot of the research, the reason there were gaps is because the programs were relatively new. As we go along, we’re able to answer more and more questions. I think the research is naturally evolving to fill a lot of those gaps. I think a lot of people are doing really interesting and wonderful work around this.
It’s hard for me to say where is the biggest gap. But I’ll give a self-plug for you and me. Because I mentioned earlier, two of my favorite issues are around school finance and school choice, to me as I think about school choice, it always feels like we’re taking whatever we can get.
Not that we’re thinking small, but programs often times have to be small, and we are just trying to work within the confines of whatever the system. But I really like the idea of thinking about what would the ideal be? What would it look like if you had an ideal funding structure for school choice? What does that look like? Where does the money come from? How is it raised? How is it distributed?
I think those types of things, like the bigger questions around what’s the right structure to foster a system that allows choice and competition, that allows the market to grow, the type of work that you and I are trying to do, I think that that’s where the gap is, and I think we’re trying to fill it.
Marty Lueken: Well, that piece is-
James Shuls: That’s our own plug right there.
Marty Lueken: Yep, that should be coming out, hopefully, sometime later this year. But James, it’s always a joy talking with you. Thank you for being with us today.
James Shuls: Hey, it’s great to be with you. NIB High Football rules.
Marty Lueken: To our listeners, thank you so much for taking the time to get to know James Shuls with me today. As always, don’t forget to subscribe to our podcast for more of our coverage of new school choice research, education reform policy chats and more. Thank you for listening, and we’ll see you soon for more EdChoice Chats.