Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia speaks on the House floor (photo courtesy of Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications).
Missouri lawmakers gave initial approval Tuesday to a bill aimed at allowing students to transfer out of their home school district, adding a pair of amendments limiting its scope.
The bill was approved Tuesday with 82 legislators voting in support — the exact number needed to reach a majority. Only one Democrat supported the measure, St. Louis Democrat Ian Mackey, and 24 Republicans were among the 67 “no” votes.
The House must approve the bill one more time before it is sent to the Senate.
Rep. Bill Pollitt, R-Sedalia, has tried to pass similar legislation for the last two years, falling short in 2022 when the House passed it but the Senate failed to take up his proposal.
Pollitt has attempted to pass the bill the past two legislative sessions. His bill last year passed the House 85-66, but the Senate didn’t vote on it.
“It’s hard to understand the issues our public schools face each and every day,” Pollitt said during Tuesday’s debate. “That being said, I think it’s imperative that we continue to work to improve and offer more choices, and I believe open enrollment is a step in the right direction for education reform.”
“You’re hearing things like it forces districts to compete against each other,” he continued. “I believe this country is built on competition. Why should any school district in the state that is funded by part of taxpayer dollars be afraid of a competitive program?”
The bill would limit students to districts who have opted into the program.
An amendment offered by Rep. John Black, R-Webster permanently limited the portion of students who can transfer out of a school district to 3%. The original legislation had a temporary 4% cap that would have been removed after four years.
Rep. Justin Hicks, R-Lake St. Louis, proposed an amendment to bar “race-based quotas” from impacting open enrollment.
“I believe what this amendment does altogether is ensure that open enrollment is open to all students,” he said. “It’s not it’s not based on race, ethnicity, national origin or anything like that.”
The original legislation has exemptions for desegregation plans and districts’ diversity plan, but Hicks’ amendment cuts that language.
Rep. Paula Brown, D-Hazelwood, asked Hicks if he had considered whether the amendment would lead to some school districts becoming segregated.
“It ensures that it doesn’t matter what race you are.. in determining which individual goes,” he said.
The House passed Hicks’ amendment 107-46 along party lines, with Rep. Gary Bonacker, R-House Springs, just voting “present.”
Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, D-Kansas City, asked Pollitt: “Does open enrollment improve student achievement?”
He said he had been waiting for that question and has seen different reports online, some noting improvement, others not.
Multiple lawmakers Tuesday questioned one of the bill’s provisions regarding special education services.
The bill does not require receiving districts to accommodate students with existing learning disabilities if it does not have the staff to provide the needed services. Some lawmakers criticized the legislation for discriminating against disabled students.
“Which school district would be responsible to ensure that a child receives an appropriate education?” Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury, asked Pollitt.
He read from his bill stating that schools do not need to hire more staff or create a program to accommodate disabled students.
“Basically a school can reject a child based on their disabilities, is that correct?” Unsicker asked.
“They can reject a child if they don’t have staff or a program in place,” Pollitt said.
He said if a child enrolls in a nonresident school district and later requires special education services, the nonresident district would be responsible for providing those accommodations.
Unsicker said the bill does not state which district, the resident district or the one a student chooses to enroll in, is responsible for testing the child for learning disabilities.
Pollitt later said that provision was based on a Wisconsin court case.
Rep. Jamie Johnson, D-Kansas City, questioned whether local funding would follow a student into their new district. She thought only federal and state money would transfer, creating a gap in funding.
Pollitt said local funding does not transfer.
“Is it possible that my district paid by my tax dollars will be spread thinner by the larger number of students?” Johnson asked.
“Possibly,” Pollitt answered, adding that districts opt into the program to receive students.
“This is an educational shell game to dismantle public education,” Johnson said. “And if you’ve ever played fair games, you know that everyone loses.”
As first reported by the Springfield News-Leader, school boards statewide have signed resolutions opposing the bill.
The legislation does not allow students to transfer into charter schools.
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