The third iteration of Rep. Brad Pollitt’s open enrollment bill was discussed Wednesday in the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee.
Pollitt, R-Sedalia, fielded questions regarding the changes the bill has gone through over the years and how it would affect Missouri schools and students.
The bill seeks to allow all districts in the state to opt into an open enrollment program that would let students transfer in and out of their “home” district.
There are many provisions that outline how many students can transfer out in a year, athletic eligibility (in many cases students must wait a year to compete for their new district) and transportation to the new district (parents would be responsible). A fund would be set up to cover transportation for students who qualify for free or discounted lunches or who qualify for special needs education programs.
The ultimate goal, Pollitt said, is to keep Missouri students in public schools.
“Open enrollment keeps the 85,000 public school students in the public school system, being taught by public school teachers who pay into the public school retirement system,” Pollitt said.
Much of the questioning brought by committee members concerned the logistics of the plan. Money was a topic of concern, as funding for the program requires appropriations by the legislature.
Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters, noted that getting appropriations for this program could prove difficult.
The committee also was concerned that the program could become mandatory for every school district. Currently, the program gives school districts the choice to opt in to accept transfers, but that doesn’t prevent students from leaving.
“I understand that this is a voluntary program, but again, we are finite,” said Rep. Paula Brown, D-Hazelwood. “How soon does this program become mandated and we have no funding and local school districts are losing money because it’s become mandated?”
The applications for transfer will be date- and time-stamped and reviewed on the basis of submission date, according to the bill. The bill outlines how students can be accepted into schools. Pollitt noted that districts cannot hand-select students who will be allowed to transfer in.
Preference for future transfers could be given to siblings of students who are currently in the district if there is room, under the bill.
For the first three years, the bill limits the number of students who couldn transfer out of a school district to 4%. Pollitt said his bill is likely to force school consolidation, but that's not his purpose nor hope.
“The facts are Missouri has less than 2% of the K-12 students in the nation and over 3% of the districts in the nation,” Pollitt said.
Multiple representatives from rural school districts opposed the legislation.
Kyle Kruse, superintendent from St. Clair School District in Franklin County, spoke against the bill. He worries about competition from neighboring districts that have more resources. Kruse said his school district is the largest employer in the town, and having students transfer to neighboring schools could mean losing seven to eight positions at minimum.
“Competition is only competition if the rules are fair and the playing field is level,” Kruse said.
Tammy Henderson, from the North Kansas City School District, worried that open enrollment programs might become involuntary. Henderson said that more than likely, the school district could not opt in because of the growth seen in the community and it would be unable to support more students without additional resources.
“There aren’t any assurances, I don’t believe, in this bill that it will always remain an opt-in for the school district,” Henderson said.
Jean Evans, a lobbyist from the American Federation for Children, said open enrollment gives parents a better say in their children’s education “whether their kid has dyslexia or is being bullied or just is not a good fit for the district.”