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Missouri House passes bill establishing open enrollment in public schools

Members of the Missouri House of Representatives mingle on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, before the start of the legislative session at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Members of the Missouri House of Representatives mingle on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, before the start of the legislative session at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.

The Missouri House passed a bill Wednesday to establish an open enrollment program for the state’s public schools.

Lawmakers voted 85-69, in a closer vote than usual, to advance the measure. It now goes to the Missouri Senate.

Speaking on his bill during debate on Tuesday, Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia, said he does not believe that students’ address should determine where they go to school.

“I think it's imperative that we continue doing work to improve and offer parents more choices, and I believe open enrollment is a step in the right direction for educational reform,” Pollitt said.

Students enrolled in a public school would be able to transfer out of their resident school district to a school that is participating in the program. State and federal dollars would follow the students to the new schools. However, local money would remain in the students’ home district.

While schools would have a choice on whether they would accept students, they would not be able to stop students from leaving.

Rep. Marlene Terry, D-St. Louis County, one of many Democrats who spoke against the bill, said children who attend school everywhere deserve a quality education.

“That does not mean removing the students out of the schools. That means fixing the schools that they are in to make sure that they are just as good and quality as others,” Terry said.

Transfers would not be able to begin until the 2024-25 school year. The program includes a cap of 3% of a school’s student population being able to transfer from a school to a participating one.

Another amendment added to the bill would eliminate diversity programs within open enrollment that were intended to encourage further desegregation of schools.

Rep. Justin Hicks, R-Lake St. Louis, proposed the amendment that removed those programs.

“It ensures that it doesn't matter what race you are, we're not using that as a determining factor in determining what schools that an individual goes to,” Hicks said.

Hicks disagreed with concerns that the amendment would segregate school districts.

Another point of contention with the bill is over how it would serve students with learning disabilities. Schools in the open enrollment program would be able to turn away students with disabilities if they do not have the staff to address those needs.

Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury, brought up that issue on the House floor.

“A district can reject a child because they cannot accommodate a child with disabilities. But the originating school district can't do that,” Unsicker said, “The school district where the child lives has to create those programs for that child if that child needs it.”

Students who transfer must stay in the district for a full year before they can transfer again. Student-athletes in high school would not be able to participate in varsity sports for the first year of enrollment, with few exceptions.

The bill had bipartisan opposition, with Rep. Gary Bonacker, R-House Springs, speaking about how it would affect his own school district.

“We will have 3%, probably for several years, leave the district because it is so much more convenient for them to go to a school district that has more to offer than my school district because of the demographics,” Bonacker said. “So that 3% loss will be a realization of over a million dollars to the school district.”

Responding to claims that this would pit schools against each other, Pollitt said this country was built on competition.

“Why should any school district and state who is supported by taxpayer dollars be afraid to compete in their academic programs?” Pollitt said.

Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Sarah Kellogg is a first year graduate student at the University of Missouri studying public affairs reporting. She spent her undergraduate days as a radio/television major and reported for KBIA. In addition to reporting shifts, Sarah also hosted KBIA’s weekly education show Exam, was an afternoon newscaster and worked on the True/False podcast. Growing up, Sarah listened to episodes of Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me! with her parents during long car rides. It’s safe to say she was destined to end up in public radio.