JEFFERSON CITY — A bill that aims to add Missouri to the list of states that allow public school open enrollment was heard in a Senate committee after narrowly passing through the House.

House Bill 543, sponsored by Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia, would allow students to attend public schools in districts where they don’t reside. Only 5% of students could transfer from a school during the first two years the bill is in effect. The bill would also establish the “Parent Public School Choice Fund,” which would use $30 million to assist low-income families with transportation costs.

“The part about this bill that’s important to me is that students stay in the public school system and the parents have choices in the public school system,” Pollitt said, adding that the bill would help keep the public school teacher retirement fund strong.

Pollitt said the bill is intended to give options for parents who disagree with a school district’s curriculum and parents who work in a town that isn’t where they live.

Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, raised concerns about special education provisions in HB 543. The bill doesn’t require additional staff to be hired, so special education students can’t go to schools that don’t have an existing special education program.

“For all intents and purposes, we’re still allowing discrimination against students who need to access special education, and we’re denying them the same opportunity,” Arthur said.

Pollitt cited a 2017 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that ruled the practice as nondiscriminatory. P.F. v. Stanford Taylor allows school districts to deny transfers from special education students if the district can’t meet their needs.

Several rural school district superintendents testified in opposition to the bill. They expressed fears that HB 543 would lead to school consolidation and leach too many students from rural schools.

Pollitt said his bill is modeled after Iowa’s open enrollment program, and he thanked the Iowa Department of Education for its help.

Canton School District Superintendent Jesse Uhlmeyer said 6% of Iowa students used open enrollment this year, but rural schools and large districts in Iowa were hit hard when it was first implemented. He said some school districts even saw 20% of students transfer.

As a superintendent surrounded by two larger school districts, Uhlmeyer said a high volume of transfers would hurt his district. He said his district could potentially lose $150,000 in government funding if 5% of the students leave.

The bill was among several bills heard Tuesday by the Senate Education Committee.

One bill would require colleges in Missouri to present both sides of any public policy topic discussed on campus. Senate Bill 566 would establish the Campus Intellectual Diversity Act and create an office of public policy that would organize debates, forums and group lectures.

Both sides of public policy issues would have to be represented and invited to the events. If an opposing speaker can’t be found at the university, the office would pay the expenses for a speaker to attend the event.

“Education, the point of it, is to give students the training so they can be the very best they can be,” said Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, the bill’s sponsor. “Doesn’t it make sense to expose them to both sides of an issue?”

Moon said both viewpoints are not always presented, and students should hear both sides to be more informed and think like adults.

Sen. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, asked who would decide what issues have two sides to debate, citing the Holocaust as a topic that shouldn’t have a taxpayer-funded rebuttal.

Others agreed.

“When we, on a college campus, offer a speaker the same platform to deny the existence of the Holocaust as we do to talk about the atrocities of the Holocaust, what we’re doing is legitimatizing an argument that is simply not true, and we’re spending tax-payer dollars to do that,” Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, said.

In a written statement to the Missourian, Moon said “SB 566 is designed to promote diversity of thought regarding some of our nation’s most pressing public policy issues — the sanctity of human life, Second Amendment Rights, economic systems, etc. In my mind, the Holocaust took place — it should not be up for a public policy debate; it’s a horrid, historical event.”

  • Mark Horvit is the state government editor. Call me at 817-726-1621 with story ideas, tips or complaints.

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