JEFFERSON CITY — Andrea Watts wants her children to leave a southwest Missouri district with schools more than an hour from her house and attend a public school less than half as far away.
So she petitioned local school officials in Cassville and got permission to send her 6-year-old daughter, Jamie, to a closer school in Shell Knob, near Table Rock Lake, but only from kindergarten through third grade. Unsatisfied, Watts appealed to state education officials seeking to guarantee that Jamie and 4-year-old Cole will attend the closer school through eighth grade.
The State Board of Education is mulling over the case to determine whether Watts qualifies for a transportation hardship that would allow her children to attend school in a different district. But several state lawmakers — some pointing to her case — have proposed a new method that would allow parents to send their children wherever they want.
Advocates say making it easier for parents to pick schools could improve academic performance, encourage parents to get more involved in their children's education and reduce dropout rates. But critics question whether open enrollment policies do much to improve academic performance and caution that it could affect school funding and make planning more difficult. They worry that the discussion could lead to a voucher system, with public money going to private schools.
"The issues of open enrollment and vouchers are a distraction from tackling the very real and difficult issues of raising student achievement and closing achievement gaps," said Brent Ghan, a spokesman for the Missouri School Boards' Association.
Teachers, meanwhile, are concerned how open enrollment would affect their districts and have suggested that education policies should focus on what already has been proven to improve schools. That includes teachers' professional development, holding down class sizes and providing early childhood education.
"We know what works, and if you make the investment and do those things, you get results," said Otto Fajen, a lobbyist for the National Education Association.
But former school superintendent Joe Knodell said the potential benefits of helping students do better in school is too great not to try. Knodell is coordinator for the Missouri Education Reform Council, which advocates ideas such as open enrollment and state vouchers to attend private schools. He said competition between schools can prompt improvement.
"If General Motors was the only car manufacturer in the United States, I'm not sure our cars would be as good," Knodell said. "If Toyota comes out with a better car, then General Motors has to come out with a better car."
More than a dozen states have open enrollment laws, including neighboring Arkansas, Iowa and Nebraska. But the policies vary widely, with some states specifically addressing issues such as transportation and school capacity while others do not.
Staff for a Missouri education committee that studied open enrollment in 2009 reported that nearly every state with mandatory open enrollment funds a larger portion of education from state coffers than Missouri does. Participation in open enrollment ranged from 0.5 percent of public school students to 18.8 percent.
Missouri already allows students to attend schools in a different district, but only in specific circumstances, such as:
- Transportation hardships, when students who would need to ride the bus for more than 75 minutes or face other unreasonable situations.
- When two school districts agree to permit students to transfer.
- St. Louis city school desegregation.
- When a school district loses its state accreditation and a different school is willing to accept students.
Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, has filed legislation for the session that starts Wednesday to expand open enrollment options whenever there is space in the chosen district.
Under Mayer's bill, every school district would adopt policies outlining their desired class sizes and ratios for teachers and students. Those policies would then be used to determine whether there is space in a school district to accept students who live elsewhere. Schools that receive students would be paid by the district from which the children left.
Lawmakers have considered open enrollment policies in past years, and in 2009, a joint House and Senate education committee studied the issue.
Larry Davis — a retired superintendent who spent 30 years leading schools in Missouri, South Dakota and North Dakota — told lawmakers during one of the committee's hearings in the Capitol that open enrollment is full of "unintended consequences." Davis said high school sports and following boyfriends or girlfriends were some of the top reasons students switched schools.
Other superintendents from Missouri school districts near Arkansas and Iowa said open enrollment could help their districts but warned that the legislature likely would need to make regular tweaks to fix problems.
Despite the concerns and uncertainty, for parents like Watts — who tailed her daughters' school bus to time the route, tracked the number of highway accidents in her area and traveled several hours to Jefferson City to plead her case — the prospect of picking her children's school is enticing.
She said an hourlong bus ride is not in her children's best interests when another school is available and much closer.
"I feel like the kids are what's important and that's what should come first," Watts said.