Missouri's House of Representatives discusses Rep. Brad Pollitt's open enrollment bill last week (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent).
As the Missouri House debated legislation last week to allow students to transfer out of their home district, rumors about the state’s declining school performance data lingered.
When the numbers became public later in the day, lawmakers were quick to voice their opinions.
Missouri students scored worse across the board from pre-pandemic levels, and 112 districts and charter schools performed poorly enough to put them on the verge of losing accreditation.
The scores seemed to have had little impact on the open enrollment vote. Roll calls before and after the release of the numbers show little change in support for the bill.
But as the shock of the scores sets in, and lawmakers dive deeper into the numbers during their annual mid-session break this week, just how they will alter the trajectory of a litany of education proposals — school vouchers, charter school expansion, changes to district evaluation, teacher pay hikes — that were already making their way through the legislature is unclear.
Mark Jones, the communications director for the Missouri branch of the National Education Association, cautioned reading too much into the latest scores, saying they are a “trailing indicator” because the tests use scores from last school year.
“These sort of assessment systems really don’t tell the whole story of what’s happening in the school,” he said, “particularly around how students are progressing individually.”
This is the first year since the pandemic began that the state held standardized testing and published districts’ annual performance reports. These APRs are also calculated on a new system, the Missouri School Improvement Program (MSIP) 6.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE, says the MSIP 6 is a more rigorous system than years’ past. It looks at standardized testing, graduation rates, student growth and school improvement plans.
Typically, the reports determine a district’s accreditation status, but because this year is a pilot year, DESE is not lowering status based on these scores. It will also use next year as a data-collection year.
In 2018, districts scored an average of 90% of possible points on a standardized test assessing English/language arts, math and social studies targets. In 2022, the test included a science portion in at least some grade levels, and districts garnered 65% of the points on DESE’s scale.
As lawmakers considered a bill by Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia, last week that would allow students to transfer out of their home district and into a public school that opts into the program, they didn’t directly reference the performance reports during floor debate.
But even though the testing numbers didn’t come up during debate doesn’t mean they went unnoticed.
“DESE’s announcement only solidifies my desire to see open enrollment become law in our state,” said Senate Majority Leader Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina. “It is not right or fair to trap students in failing school districts that are not meeting their needs.”
Rep. Phil Christofanelli, a St. Peters Republican, said the scores show this year is an opportune time to pass Pollitt’s bill.
“DESE’s announcement proves that now more than ever, Missouri families deserve options when it comes to their child’s education. We can’t continue to trap kids in failing school districts,” he said. “The time has come to pass open enrollment and other options that give families the freedom to choose what’s best for their child’s future.”
House Speaker Dean Plocher, R-Des Peres, called Pollitt’s bill a “step in the right direction.”
“It’s appalling so many schools are failing. I think we have to look at ourselves and see what we can do to make improvements on the educational system,” he said.
Pollitt dismissed criticism of his bill, saying it is “pro-public school.”
“I believe this is a pro public education because it keeps the tax dollars and keeps the students in the public school system,” he said.
Democrats worried that open enrollment, even an incremental version, is simply the first step towards the GOP dismantling public education.
“What do we want in our school?” Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, D-Kansas City said. “The landscape is changing drastically, ladies and gentlemen. Look at what’s happened with charters. We now have vouchers, what’s next?”
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, argued the open enrollment bill “is going to open a Pandora’s box.”
Quade described Pollitt’s bill as the first step toward legislation she believes would be more harmful to public schools, like the expansion of the state’s charter school system. She argued that the expansion of charters, which currently are only allowed in St. Louis and Kansas City, is unwarranted considering their low performance on the annual performance report.
But charters scored on par or better than traditional schools in the latest round of testing.
Kansas City charter schools scored an average of 71.4% on the MSIP 6, compared to the Kansas City Public Schools’ 70.7%. St. Louis charter schools earned an average of 71.3%, compared to St. Louis Public Schools’ 63.9%.
State Rep. David Tyson Smith, D-Columbia, said in the House chambers Wednesday that Pollitt “clearly wants to do the right thing,” but Smith had worries about the bill’s impact on students that lose their classmates to neighboring districts.
“There are some children who are going to do (leave), and they’re gonna have better opportunities… The problem is you have to deal with the other side of the seesaw,” he said. “We could open up sinkholes around the state where people are devastated.”
Pollitt told The Independent that he didn’t like the term “sinkholes” and felt there were enough provisions to protect students who stay in their home districts, such as a permanent 3% cap in the portion of students who can leave a school annually.
Beyond open enrollment, Republican lawmakers are also pushing a host of other bills, including some seeking to expand public funding of private schools.
Sen. Andrew Koenig, a Manchester Republican who chairs the Senate education committee, is hoping to expand the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program that allows low-income students or those with individualized educational plans in cities to use half their family’s state tax burden toward private education.
Koenig is hoping to expand the areas students could live in to be eligible for the scholarship account, increase the funding given to students with IEPs and allow families of all financial statuses to be eligible.
He admits, even with renewed interest in education policy in the wake of student test scores, that passing his legislation will be an “uphill battle.”
“If your school is not performing up to par, then parents should have another option,” Koenig said.
“If [parents] think it’s a good school, they can go to that school. If they don’t, then give them the means to go somewhere else.”
Meanwhile, Democrats are hopeful lawmakers will use some of the state’s massive budget surplus to boost teacher salaries.
DESE’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Teacher Recruitment and Retention, which was established in 2022 to look into the state’s education workforce issues and make suggestions to the legislature, has also requested a higher salary base for Missouri teachers and a look at the pay ladder.
“We have had minimal pay raises… But that’s not enough,” Quade said. “We need to be having a real conversation about what kids need and what our teachers need to do their jobs successfully.”
Pollitt is also interested in raising teacher salaries. As chair of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, he has begun studying the formula that funds districts’ operating budgets in hopes lawmakers can improve the 17-year-old system.
The governor’s budget has boosted base salaries with one-year grants, but Pollitt said districts need a permanent solution and assurance the money will be there annually to pay teachers.
Jones said the MNEA has watched DESE lower standards for substitute teachers when educators believe the solution is a raise.
“If you want highly qualified, highly motivated people in the classroom, these are professionals, and they need to be compensated as professionals because we want highly motivated professionals with our kids,” he said.
Jones ultimately believes that the state’s accreditation program is flawed.
“The legislature should really focus on giving local districts more control over how they evaluate students and student assessment,” he said.
Rep. Marlene Terry, D-St. Louis, whose local school district has been provisionally accredited for over a decade, doesn’t believe DESE knows what is best for communities.
“Our children do not learn the same way across the state,” she said.
Bipartisan bills in both the House and Senate seek to provide alternatives to DESE’s accreditation system.
Rep. Paula Brown, D-Hazelwood, filed a bill that seeks to give school districts the option of selecting a national accreditation program instead of the state’s default system.
“I don’t think we need an accreditation system. I think we need a grounded accountability system,” she told The Independent.
Sen. Jill Carter, R-Granby, filed the same legislation in the Senate as well as a wider bill that would allow locally funded districts to opt out of the state assessment system. That bill passed a Senate committee.
Brown said Missouri’s assessment reports don’t tell educators how each grade level is performing and only captures a “snapshot in time.”
The House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee held a hearing on Brown’s bill in February but has not voted on it.
Jones hopes that lawmakers will consider the pandemic as context for the districts’ scores and believes a few more years of data is necessary before making conclusions.
“We need to see more than just one set of data before we make large sweeping decisions about what it means,” he said.
He doesn’t think families will get stuck on their district’s score because they have perspective some lawmakers don’t: Daily interaction with the schools.
“[Families] are living that every day,” he said. “They meet their teachers that they’re giving their kids to every day. They get the notes at home, and they have calls and emails and communication with the teachers and the paraprofessionals that are helping their kids every day. A lot of that is much more indicative of what parents will choose to do.”
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