MO lawmaker says 'good' districts have nothing to fear from open enrollment
Missouri lawmaker Brad Pollitt explained Wednesday that the newest version of his public school "open enrollment" bill was carefully crafted to overcome issues — from funding to transportation eligibility — that scuttled its success in recent years.
The Republican state representative from Sedalia outlined details of House Bill 253 for the House Elementary and Secondary Education committee that he chairs.
In the two-hour hearing, Pollitt argued an address should not dictate where a child enrolls in school. For the third year, he proposed legislation that will allow students to move to a different district, as long as the receiving district has voluntarily agreed to accept transfers.
"I believe if you've got a good school district, you don't have anything to worry about," he said. "If you don't have a good school district, you may have something to worry about and you should have something to worry about."
Pollitt said open enrollment allows "parents to access a better education" for their children, if they believe it can be found in a neighboring district. He argued competition is good.
He said the effort gives families "access to instructional programs and classes that are not available in the resident district (and) offers parents the opportunity to select curriculum options that better align with their personal beliefs."
Among committee members that spoke, most appeared supportive of the proposal. School officials from across the state questioned or spoke against it.
"Schools are the heart of the community. That is very true," said Tammy Henderson, executive director of community relations and legislative affairs for the North Kansas City district. "I know you all talked a lot about that in terms of rural schools but it's true for suburban and urban schools as well."
School leaders talk impact of open enrollment
Opponents argued open enrollment will siphon needed resources away from districts and overburden others, force schools to consolidate, and spur districts to compete for students.
At least 43 states have policies that allow students to select and attend districts outside of where they are expected to attend, based on where they live. The majority make the option mandatory.
Henderson said she worries the voluntary option of accepting students may become mandatory over time.
"If we had to be forced to take new students right now, we would have no choice but to hire new staff and to build new buildings because ... right now we are struggling just to stay up with the growth we're seeing," she said.
Kyle Kruse, superintendent of the 2,100-student St. Clair district, said competition can be healthy but only when the playing field is level.
"We are a have-not district. We have the lowest tax rate in the area. We have the lowest assessed valuation in the area and that's after our taxpayers passed a tax levy increase in 2016 and a bond issue in 2020," he said. "We have the lowest teacher salaries in the area. Every year we find teachers, we train them and they get taken by other districts in the coming years."
Kruse said the district has invested in STEM, gifted, JROTC, building trades, and agriculture education programs but cannot expand because of space and money.
"If this bill goes through, we expect to lose 100 or more students. Some will go play softball at Sullivan because they have a state-contending team, some to Union because they have a beautiful gymnasium, and some to Pacific because of their weight room facilities," he said.
"Our football team was undefeated in ... the regular season but we'll lose kids because our facilities are not as nice and we can't afford to fix that. We'll lose younger students because their parents find it more convenient to move them somewhere else."
Kruse said the district, heavily dependent on state funding, will lose an estimated $400,000 if 100 students transfer out.
"These kids won't be clustered in certain grade levels. They'll be scattered throughout the district," he said. "So, where do you lay off teachers? What programs do you cut?"
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'Transportation is the responsibility of the parent' in most cases
As part of the proposal, Pollitt called for creation of an $80 million public school choice fund, a higher amount than previously proposed, to help districts absorbing transfer students.
If approved, the amount is expected to be allocated and adjusted annually based on need.
Rep. Paula Brown, a Democrat from Hazelwood, said she worries what will happen if districts "open their arms to other students and, boom, the funding mechanism is gone."
"That scares me for those students," she said.
Brown said the opt-in may start voluntary but there is no guarantee it will stay that way. She worries the option will be mandated and districts will lose money if no state funding is available. "This is a heavy bill. It has an opportunity to make a lot of great things happen but the heartburn is where the heartburn is."
The proposal will require districts to notify the state by Dec. 1 if they will accept students, and in which schools and grades. Parents must apply for transfers by Feb. 1. Districts must make transfer decisions by April 1.
The bill calls for details of the transfer process to be written by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
"You cannot handpick students. Once a student is accepted under open enrollment, they remain in the new district until they graduate or leave," Pollitt said. He added the siblings of transfer students will be given a preference in the transfer request process.
Districts cannot block a transfer out but the number of students allowed to transfer out of a district will be capped at 4% annually, which was higher and lower in earlier proposals.
State funding attached to the student in the home district will transfer with the child. However, local funding does not transfer.
The proposal calls for limited reimbursement for districts that provide busing to transfer students who qualify for free or reduced price meals. Receiving districts can also provide busing to and from school for a transfer child dropped off, by a parent, at a designated bus stop.
"Transportation is the responsibility of the parent with some paid exceptions," Pollitt said.
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Rep. Marlene Terry, a Democrat from St. Louis, said rather than leave one district for another, she wants to give each district the resources it needs.
Terry said lawmakers want to strengthen and "fix" public schools and open enrollment could be damaging to the districts that are struggling.
"We need to fix our schools, we need to fix our funding and not be moving children around from school to school," she said. " ... If we continue to take children out of our schools, we have no schools in our community, then we have a community that is dead."
Pollitt said the proposed legislation is his attempt to keep students in public schools, to encourage quality teaching and learning, and to give parents more choice.
In response to a question about why the open enrollment plan does not include charter schools, Pollitt said: "I'd like to try and fix the issues that we have in the system. If you have a public school that is more conservative than your local taxpayers like, or more liberal, then to have a choice to go to another district sends a message that 'I don't like this, I'm not going to support this' and I'd rather do that with the public schools establishment that we have now than opening that up to additional buildings."
Open enrollment rally, a Senate proposal
Another proposal from the Republican chair of the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Andrew Koenig of St. Louis County, would create an open enrollment program that districts can opt into annually. It caps transfers out of a district at 5% and district would not be required to add staff or classrooms.
Koenig's bill was heard by a committee Tuesday morning and has not yet been voted on. If it is approved by the committee, it will go before the full Senate.
The proposals for open enrollment come as more Republicans explore legislative alternatives to public schools, with increased scrutiny among conservatives towards districts around the state.
At a rally held by school choice advocates in the Missouri State Capitol rotunda on Tuesday, Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden of Columbia, told a crowd of around 50 that he would "continue to push forward" on expanding options for students and families.
"I have two years left in the legislature, and my goals are pretty simple," Rowden said. "It is to provide as much accountability and as much transparency to parents to know what's going on in their kid's education. And if they're not satisfied, or happy with that, to provide them with an outlet to have the choice to send them somewhere else."
The leader of the Senate also criticized some who work within the realm of public education.
"There are some folks who say that they advocate for kids, who advocate for parents, who aren't actually doing that," Rowden said. "They're advocating for a bureaucracy, they're advocating for a union, they're advocating for a status quo that benefits them, but doesn't benefit kids and doesn't benefit parents."
He made similar remarks in his opening speech to Senate earlier this month, arguing that the state education board and department "has not done enough."
“It’s not pointing fingers," Rowden said later about the speech. "It’s just we all failed, we’ve all not done enough to move the ball and more the needle properly for kids and I do think kids have suffered."
Claudette Riley covers education for the News-Leader. Email tips and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: MO lawmaker says 'good' districts should not fear open enrollment