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Missouri House passes open enrollment legislation for public schools, bill now goes to Senate

An empty first grade classroom on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023, at Nance Elementary School in the North Pointe neighborhood of St. Louis.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
An empty first grade classroom on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023, at Nance Elementary School in the North Pointe neighborhood of St. Louis.

The Missouri House passed legislation on Wednesday establishing an open enrollment program for the state’s public schools.

The bill, which passed 86-73, a closer vote than normal in the Republican supermajority-led chamber, is the first one passed by the House this session.

“I ask the body to have faith in their local districts. This puts the decision of the local taxpayers on how their district may look in the future,” said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia. “This keeps all the public school students that are presently in public schools in the public school system.”

Through the legislation, families would be given the option to send children to school districts where they do not reside. Students can transfer only once each school year but could return to their original district.

School districts would be able to choose whether to accept nonresident students. They also can set the number of students they would be willing to enroll.

However, school districts would not be able to opt out of students leaving their district. The bill does allow schools to restrict the number of outgoing students to 3% of the previous school year’s enrollment.

Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, D-Kansas City, worried about how this bill would affect smaller rural school districts.

“Open enrollment will leave small-school rural districts fighting for their lives against larger rural districts that have more resources, and it will lead to district consolidation,” Nurrenbern said.

Under the bill, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or a different entity, would be required to develop a model open enrollment transfer policy that school districts must adopt, whether they participate in the program or not. School boards would be able to modify that policy.

The cost of the legislation is roughly $80 million in general revenue for fiscal 2026, according to the bill’s fiscal analysis note. That $80 million will go toward a Parent Public School Choice Fund, which could go toward transportation needs.

The bill now goes to the Missouri Senate, where it has died in previous sessions. However, Senate Republican leaders have said that education choice, which could include open enrollment, is a priority for them this session.

If the bill were to pass both chambers, the open enrollment program would not begin until the 2025-26 school year.

Speaking in favor of the legislation during debate Tuesday, Rep. Ed Lewis, R-Moberly, said many districts in Missouri already have a mobility rate greater than 3%.

“You're just allowing those people who don't want to necessarily move locations of their house but want to attend a district that's adjacent to them,” Lewis said.

Multiple Democrats spoke against the legislation, including Rep. Marlene Terry, D-St. Louis County, who said the bill would ruin her community.

“Until we come up with something that's going to fix all our public schools where no child would have to leave their community to get an education, or what you call a better education ... this is a problem,” Terry said.

Copyright 2024 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.
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