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Jan. 30, 2024 |  By: Annelise Hanshaw - Missouri Independent

Open enrollment legislation wins initial approval in Missouri House

a classroom

By Annelise Hanshaw - Missouri Independent

bill that would allow students to enroll in neighboring school districts won initial approval in the Missouri House for the fourth year in a row Tuesday on an 83-69 vote. 

It is the first bill to be debated by the full House this legislative session. It must be approved one more time by the House before it is sent to the Senate for consideration. 

Bill sponsor Rep. Brad Pollitt, a Republican from Sedalia, described the proposal as “minor compared to what others want to do.”

“The status quo says the bill goes too far. The reform side says it doesn’t go far enough,” he said in his introduction of the bill.

A nearly identical bill narrowly passed the House in a 85-68 vote last year, just three more than a constitutional majority of the chamber. New to the legislation this year is the creation of an online portal that would track the number of students who have applied to enroll in accepting districts.

If passed, the legislation would allow students to leave their local school to enroll in districts that opt into the open enrollment. Districts are not required to add staff or programs, such as special education, for the program.

Transportation would be parents’ responsibility, unless the child qualifies for free or reduced lunch or has transportation under an individualized education plan. The bill calls for a fund to pay for bussing these students.

Pollitt placed a 3% cap on the number of students who can leave a district annually under open enrollment. He proposed a 1% cap for districts with a high number of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, describing it as a compromise for the Senate. 

He removed the 1% cap upon advice from a caucus policy committee.

Some worry that, without that provision, open enrollment could lead to resegregation in some areas.

Rep. Kathy Steinhoff, a Columbia Democrat, complimented Pollitt but said the lack of “diversity protections” and other negatives “outweigh the positives.”

“One of the concerns is that it’s going to create a slow drain for several schools and districts,” she said.

Rep. Marlene Terry, a St. Louis Democrat, said the legislation would “destroy (her) school.”

“We do agree that parents should have choices, but what I keep hearing is a better environment or a better education,” she said. “Until you can tell me how you’re going to fix the environment and the education in the public school system to where my children stay, I’m going to continually be against this bill.”

Rep. Barbara Phifer, a Democrat from St. Louis, described open enrollment as a “patch on a big problem.” The problem, she said, is unequal funding of public schools.

“We pretend that there is no school choice, but we have made an economic decision here in the state of Missouri that those who are wealthy get better education than those who are not wealthy,” Phifer said. “We can argue about that, and we can actually change the way that we fund public education so that we have more equity.”

Rep. Peter Merideth, a St. Louis Democrat, said school funding was a timely topic. Earlier in the day, he had discussed the formula that determines state funding of public schools in the budget committee.

He said the state funding has lagged behind inflation. Wealthy communities’ local funding has allowed schools to be better equipped, and those without deep pockets may lose students under open enrollment.

Rep. Stephanie Hein, a Springfield Democrat, attempted to amend the bill to raise the base teacher pay to $46k statewide by the 2027-28 school year. The bill title would also change to “elementary and secondary education.”

Her attempt to change the title failed on a 44-109 party-line vote after Pollitt said it opened the bill “to anything else to do with public education.”

Pollitt said he was in favor of increasing teacher salaries but wanted his bill to stand alone.

Last year, Pollitt’s bill died waiting to come to the floor of the Senate. He told The Independent Senate leaders attached his legislation to a bill about teacher recruitment and retention in an attempt to avoid a filibuster.