by Molly Miller
Missouri News Network
The House of Representatives gave initial approval Tuesday of a bill that would implement voluntary open enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools.
The bill passed the House for the fourth year in a row despite 24 Republican legislators voting against the legislation. Last year, an attempt to enact open enrollment in Missouri’s schools died in the Senate.
Missouri House Bill 1989 allows students and their families to enroll in an out of district school that has opted into the school choice program. The child would be required to attend the school for at least a year with protections in place so schools couldn’t unenroll them from the program.
Bill sponsor Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia, said, “My purpose of this bill is to give a small amount of parents a choice within the public school system. If their district isn’t offering them what they believe their child will need to be successful, they don’t have any choices.”
Critics of school choice programs in Missouri cite concerns over funding, decreasing revenue for public schools and fear of school consolidation as a result.
According to Pollitt, the local funding for a child would remain local and not follow them to their new school district. Only the state funding would be allocated to the new school instead of the resident school district.
“The bill allows nonresident schools to deny transfer,” said Rep. Kathy Steinhoff, D-Columbia. ”One of the provisions is for disruptive students. We often know disruptive students and their parents are looking for a fresh start, but this bill allows a nonresident school to deny them.”
Before being elected to the House, Steinhoff was a math teacher in Columbia Public Schools for 34 years.
Open enrollment is legal in 43 states, including all of the states bordering Missouri, except Illinois. Currently, only school choice within the same district is allowed in Missouri.
The open enrollment program would be capped at 3% of total enrollment for all participating schools. In addition, a “good cause” provision aims to help students who may be facing extenuating circumstances, like entering foster care or becoming ineligible due to a parental divorce, stay at the same school despite being out of district.
The bill makes it voluntary for school districts to participate in the program and limit how many nonresident students will be accepted for a given year.
The Kansas legislature recently passed legislation making open enrollment mandatory starting with the 2024-25 school year. Opponents of mandatory open enrollment in Kansas have been outspoken about the negative impact of the practice on schools.
Pollitt told House members that his intention is not to make school choice mandatory in the future.