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News Brief

Jan. 10, 2024 |  By: Annelise Hanshaw - Missouri Independent

Open enrollment is the first education bill considered this year by Missouri House

Brad Pollitt

By Annelise Hanshaw - Missouri Independent

A proposal to allow Missouri’s public school districts to open their boundaries is back this legislative session as the first education bill to get a hearing in the state House.

The House Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education opened its first hearing of the year by considering Sedalia Republican Rep. Brad Pollitt’s open enrollment bill.

“This bill allows the 899,000 students in the state of Missouri in the public school system the opportunity to have choice within the very system that their parents pay taxes to,” Pollitt told committee members.

He told The Independent at the close of last year’s session that there was a plan in place to pass his bill through the Senate, latching it to state Rep. Ed Lewis’s bill on teacher recruitment and retention.

But in a fit of filibusters in the session’s closing days, the bills never made it to the full Senate for debate.

Pollitt wrote what he calls a “compromise” into the bill, capping the number of transfers annually at 1% of the student population in districts with a high number of free-and-reduced-lunch students. He thought this would help it pass the Senate, but he told the committee on Wednesday that policy leaders in the Republican caucus recommended removing the provision.

Otto Fajen, lobbyist for the Missouri branch of the teachers union National Education Association, said removing the compromise language caused him to oppose the bill. Otherwise, the association would have a more neutral stance.

“Because the committee is now poised to remove any protection against resegregation… you need to be thoughtful about that,” Fajen said. “You need to have some kind of break if you start to see things going in the wrong direction.”

Some lawmakers last year voiced concerns that the bill would resegregate schools if minority students stayed in their home districts while others left. Rep. Paula Brown, a Democrat from Hazelwood, repeated this concern Wednesday.

“Do you worry that we could face another desegregation plan from the feds at all with any of this?” she asked.

“I can’t look into a crystal ball and say that only non-minority students would leave the district,” Pollitt responded.

The bill has a 3% limit on the proportion of students that can leave a school district annually.

Some are worried the limit isn’t enough protection for school districts.

Mike Lodewegen, lobbyist for the Missouri Council of School Administrators, said the students and teachers that are left in a district after some leave “have to deal with the ramifications.”

The district will want to make cuts when the state funding leaves, he said, but the students leaving will likely be spread across grade levels.

“Now you’re looking at cutting programs and options available to students,” Lodewegen said.

When students enroll in a neighboring district, according to the bill, state aid — but not local aid — will follow them. It also calls for a $80 million fund to reimburse transportation costs for students that qualify as free and reduced lunch or enrolled in special education.

Pollitt said the $80 million was based on the number of students he anticipates will participate in enrollment, looking at surrounding states’ open-enrollment programs.

The number of special education students participating in this program may be stifled by a provision that says school districts are not required to add staff or programs if they opt into open enrollment.

Rep. Kathy Steinhoff, a Columbia Democrat, asked if that would be akin to discrimination based on disability.

Pollitt said he wrote this provision based on a case out of Wisconsin where a court ruled school districts didn’t have to add staff for its open-enrollment program.

He asked superintendents during his travels around the state about this provision, inquiring whether it should be mandatory to accept students in special education.

“Absolutely not,” he said he was told. “Because we know in this state that our special ed teachers have their case votes that are already full.“

The bill passed the House last session in a 85-69 vote.