JEFFERSON CITY — A bill related to a 2019 Columbia Public Schools controversy over seclusion and restraint has again been brought before a House committee.
The bill, proposed by Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, would prohibit the use of seclusion and restraint techniques unless students are a danger to themselves or others.
It would also require monitoring and reporting of instances where seclusion or restraint was used against a student, including mandating that schools attempt to promptly notify parents.
Bailey’s bill was discussed Tuesday by a House education committee, along with two proposals that would create “open enrollment” systems where students could attend public schools outside their districts.
Bailey said seclusion and restraint is most often used against students who are less likely to speak out to their parents either due to physical limitations or disenfranchisement.
“This seclusion and restraint does disproportionately effect kiddos with disabilities and African American kids,” she said.
Bailey and Rep. Ian Mackey, D-St. Louis, have been pursuing similar legislation since the 2019 legislative session. They have often worked together on the issue and have attempted to gain bipartisan support.
Only months after Mackey initially proposed a bill limiting seclusion and restraint, CPS became embroiled in controversy after photos of an under-construction seclusion room went viral. District officials said at the time that the photos were misleading because they were taken before the rooms were complete.
“What I have seen over the last year has been nothing short of appalling,” Mackey said in a January 2020 news conference. “Tiny, empty closets built and designed solely for the purpose of isolating small children.”
Ultimately, CPS revised its seclusion and restraint policies, but the district has remained under heavy criticism from many parents and lawmakers in what CPS called “an intentional campaign against the incredibly hardworking staff of Columbia Public Schools” in a 2019 message to employees and others.
Bailey specifically referenced CPS when presenting the bill to the Elementary and Secondary Education Committee on Tuesday. She said the bill could gain support from even the most conservative of lawmakers.
“You guys know me,” Bailey said. “I’m not a regulator, but this is one where I kind of hit the wall.”
The committee also discussed two bills dealing with open enrollment. If passed, the bills would allow some students to attend public schools outside of their districts.
One of the two bills, proposed by Rep. John Weimann, R-O’Fallon, would create a statewide program where school districts would specify a number of students they would accept from other districts. The only districts explicitly excluded from the program are two special school districts.
Weimann clarified that he does not see the program as mandatory because districts can set the number of students they accept at zero, while the special school districts can opt out entirely.
The second bill was sponsored by Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia. Pollitt said he based his bill largely on Weimann’s bill combined with advice he received from the Iowa Department of Education. Iowa already has an open enrollment program.
The primary difference between Weimann’s bill and Pollitt’s bill is in funding. Pollitt’s would provide $60 million from state revenue for the program, while Weimman’s would leave the cost to local districts. Another difference is that Pollitt’s bill requires districts to opt into the program. Neither bill would go into place until the 2023-24 fiscal year.
Pollitt, a former public school coach, principal and superintendent, said his motivation for the bill was to allow for school choice without sacrificing public school funding.
“With 34 years in the public school system, I wouldn’t put forward something that I thought would hurt public school systems, and I don’t believe this would,” he said.
One concern is the number of school districts that would opt out. Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, said he supports the bill, but he worries mostly white school districts in St. Louis County will opt out, preventing students from districts that serve largely Black populations in the county and city from having real access to open enrollment.
“I like the gist of your bill,” Dogan said. “I like where you’re going with this, but I am concerned with school districts just opting out.”
Another concern was that open enrollment would lead to school district consolidation, especially in rural areas. Pollitt acknowledged that was possible but painted potential school district consolidation as a sign of the times, not a result of any one program. He also expressed confidence that displaced teachers would be hired by other districts due to an existing shortage.
Multiple education organizations testified in opposition to both bills, including the Missouri State Teachers Association and the Missouri Council of School Administrators.
The committee also voted 11-7 to move forward a bill initially discussed in January that would provide scholarships for public school students to attend private schools. It did so only after amending the bill in order to limit scholarships to students leaving public schools with an Individualized Education Program or students whose families only make 200% of the federal poverty level or less.
These changes were made “so that it goes to families most in need,” said bill sponsor Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters.