Push for open enrollment picks up steam as Missouri GOP focuses on education bills

During ‘National School Choice Week,’ committees in both the House and Senate debated proposals allowing students to leave their home school district

By: - January 30, 2023 5:55 am

Around 70 school-choice advocates rally under the Missouri Capitol rotunda Tuesday as part of National School Choice Week (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

The push to allow Missouri students to transfer out of their home district and direct tax money toward their new school of choice is picking up momentum, with a state Senate committee set to approve a pair of bills this week.

The bills — one that would allow public districts and charter schools to open to nonresidents and another that would give families a tax credit to use toward any school — were debated by the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee last week. It was the same day advocacy organizations rallied at the Missouri Capitol for National School Choice Week.

“Sometimes kids need a change,” Rep, Andrew Koenig, a Manchester Republican and chair of the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee said as he introduced his bill. “Sometimes kids are being bullied and they need a fresh option.”

Koenig’s proposed legislation is similar to a bill sponsored by Rep. Brad Pollitt, a Republican from Sedalia and chair of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee. The House committee held a public hearing for Pollitt’s bill Wednesday.

Both Koenig and Pollitt propose a voluntary open-enrollment program, which would allow school districts to decide if they want to allow nonresident students to apply to their schools.

Both specify that districts would not be required to add staff to serve the children who apply —which means that school districts with full caseloads in special education would not be required to accept students who need disability services.

In Koenig’s bill, resident school districts can limit the number of students that can transfer out to 5% in the first two school years. Pollitt allows resident school districts to enforce a cap of 4% for four years.

During last week’s public hearing, Sen. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat, asked about the bill’s potential to create racial divides.

“It would be an unintended consequence, but it could create segregation of communities,” she said. “And I think we can find guardrails against that.”

Koenig noted that his bill allows districts to deny transfers as part of a diversity plan, a program school boards sometimes adopt on their own to avoid isolating minorities.

The primary difference between Koenig and Pollitt’s proposals is that the Senate version would allow students to transfer into charter schools while Pollitt did not include charters.

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Rep. Mike Haffner, a Republican from Pleasant Hill, said his support for Pollitt’s bill was “tepid” because of the lack of charter schools and pressed him on why these schools are not included. Pollitt said he didn’t want to spread the students, and therefore the money, too thin between resources.

“I would like to try to fix the issues that we have within the system… I would rather do this with the public school system we have now than open that up to additional buildings and additional staff and an additional administration and spread that money out,” Pollitt said.

Public testimony on Pollitt’s bill was split evenly between those in favor and in opposition of the legislation. Many in support of the bill represented advocacy organizations while school administrators opposed the legislation.

Kyle Kruse, superintendent of the St. Clair School District, said he anticipates losing 100 or more students throughout the district if the bill passes.

“Because they’re scattered throughout the district, where do you make cuts?” he said. “If this bill gets passed, the ‘haves’ gets more, and the ‘have-nots’ get less.”

Rep. Marlene Terry, a Democrat from Bellefontaine Neighbors, said the state should be focusing on the students with fewer resources to improve the educational system.

“It’s really the ‘have-nots’ we need to be focusing on to make our schools better,” she said.

Even more choice

Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman enters the Missouri Senate on the first day of the 2023 legislative session (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).

The other Senate bill expected to be voted out of committee Tuesday is sponsored by Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, an Arnold Republican. Her legislation stretches throughout schooling options, including homeschool students, with minimal government oversight.

“This bill is a simple bill,” she told the committee last week. “It just says that money should follow the child and that parents are the best ones to determine who they think should teach their children.”

Her bill gives 100% of the state’s funding formula to the parent’s school of choice. If a family educates their children at home, they are eligible to receive all educational expenses in a tax credit.

Parents could claim their state aid to apply the funds to a private school, another public school or a parochial school. The transferring students’ resident districts would not be able to count them for state and federal aid.

Koenig asked Coleman if there is oversight of the funds.

“The parents are the best ones to decide if the education system is working for their children,” Coleman said. “So yes, the oversight is the parent of the child.”

Jamie Morris, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, said his organization is in favor of giving parents the decision.

“In my discussions with a lot of our network, I do appreciate that she’s also looking out for the homeschoolers as well that have always come to me and asked, ‘What are we doing for the homeschool families that don’t really have an option as far as the funding mechanism?’” he said.

Coleman, who attended public schools herself, said she does not anticipate a “mass exodus” from resident districts. “I think they’re working for most of our kids,” she said.

She said giving parents an option to move their children to other schools would solve “other cultural fights that are taking place in the building,” like demands over curriculum transparency.

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Annelise Hanshaw
Annelise Hanshaw

Annelise Hanshaw writes about education — a beat she has covered on both the West and East Coast while working for daily newspapers in Santa Barbara, California, and Greenwich, Connecticut. A born-and-raised Missourian, she is proud to be back in her home state.