JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — As bills expanding charter schools and creating new scholarship accounts for private school tuition make their way through the Legislature, one piece of legislation is trying to give students more options within the public schools that already exist.
House Bill 543, sponsored by Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia, would establish the Public School Open Enrollment Act. Starting in the 2022-23 school year, it would allow students to apply to transfer to participating school districts outside of the one in which they reside. If their family owned property and paid school taxes in a district outside of their home district for two years, they would not have to go through the open enrollment process.
Pollitt, a former school superintendent in Sedalia, said the bill leaves decisions on whether to participate and to what extent in the hands of school districts.
But the bill is raising concerns that it could increase segregation, further discriminate against students with disabilities and lead to consolidation of small school districts — despite provisions added to attempt to curb those effects.
“I always have and I always will support the efforts of the public school system, but it’s imperative that we get better,” Pollitt said, during a Senate committee hearing Tuesday. He later said, “We all know that change is hard. and change is slow. But I believe that most individuals in the Capitol realize that we need some form of reform in public education. But finding common ground has been difficult.”
The bill is part of a wave of school-choice legislation filed this session, with advocates hopeful that the pandemic has imbued the movement with the momentum needed to pass significant measures in a Legislature where they have historically faced resistance.
Last month, Pollitt’s bill eked out of the House with the bare minimum of 82 votes required to pass — speaking to the hill school-choice measures have to climb.
Rep. Mark Sharp, a Kansas City Democrat and a former high school teacher, said he feared the bill would only serve to benefit the most well-resourced families while delivering the “final blow” to struggling school districts.
“In a perfect world — every school district created equally — maybe this doesn’t have any terrible, negative implications,” Sharp said on the House floor late last month. “But that’s not the world that we live in right now. We have to be trying to uplift these school districts that are failing and try to make them better.”
Fears of segregation, discrimination, consolidation
Under Pollitt’s bill, accepting transfer students under the open enrollment program would be optional for districts. By Oct. 1, districts would decide whether they would accept transfer students and, for the first two years of the program, could restrict the overall number to a maximum of 5% of the previous year’s total enrollment.
Applications would be reviewed in the order received, and preference could be given to students with siblings who also applied or are already enrolled in the same nonresident district.
In addition, the bill would establish a $30 million Parent Public School Choice Fund, which would be used to reimburse transportation costs for certain students who qualify for free and reduced-rate lunches and districts providing special educational services.
It’s unclear how many districts may opt in and how many students may take advantage of the program, making it difficult to pin down what exact costs might be, according to a fiscal analysis for the bill.
Supporters of the legislation such as Aaron Baker, a lobbyist for the American Federation for Children, and Kate Casas, a lobbyist for Excellence In Education In Action, said more choices will lead to better outcomes for all students and that excluding charter schools from the program would be “a big mistake.”
But opponents worry provisions of the bill intended to not place extra burdens on districts may serve to exclude some students — and they want guardrails to ensure that’s not the case.
Under the legislation, districts would not be required to provide additional special education services for students with disabilities if they cannot meet those needs.
If districts have room in their special education programs, they should take on more students, Pollitt said, noting that a family may want to send a child with dyslexia to a school with an evidence-based reading program. But if they’re at capacity, then a school would be permitted to turn students down, as the bill does not require schools to add teachers, staff or classrooms.
Pollitt pointed to a 2019 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, which found Wisconsin’s open enrollment program did not violate federal anti-discrimination laws after a group of students with disabilities who were rejected transfers sued.
“For the program to work, school districts must evaluate their existing space and resources and the needs of the transfer applicants. Not all students are the same,” the ruling read. “A sixth grader requires different services than a fourth grader, and the program allows districts to categorize their capacity accordingly. It wouldn’t follow that the program discriminates against fourth graders if a nonresident school district only has excess capacity in the sixth grade. The same is true of students with special needs.”
But Scott Kimble, the director of advocacy for the Missouri Association of School Administrators, said that if the state’s two special school districts that serve students with disabilities choose not to participate, then students transferring to those areas would be left without an entity to meet their needs.
“We don’t know how you avoid the discrimination aspect of that,” Kimble said, “when you are treating special-needs kids differently, forcing them to jump through an additional hoop that a general education kid would not.”
Districts under a court-ordered desegregation plan, which schools in Missouri have a long history of, may be exempt from the program, and those with a diversity plan can deny transferring students if it would conflict with the plan’s aims.
“But then a program that you’re offering to most students is not going to be offered to some students because of the district that they live in and because the district wants to have diversity,” Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, said during Tuesday’s hearing.
It’s an issue that has frustrated some families in the Des Moines School District, which is one of a handful in Iowa whose diversity plan restricts participation in the state’s open enrollment system.
Pollitt said his legislation was modeled after Iowa’s program, which was enacted in 1989. As of 2018, 47 states and Washington, D.C., had some form of open enrollment, according to the Education Commission of the States.
Exceptions to Missouri’s residency rules include transportation hardships or transferring out of an unaccredited district.
A 2012 study analyzing the impact of a decade of Minnesota’s open enrollment system found that it increased racial segregation in the Twin Cities metro area. A 2018 report analyzing Colorado’s open enrollment system found that participating students were more likely to be white than the overall student population and less likely to come from low-income families.
Rural schools lose ‘arms race’
A succession of school superintendents warned Tuesday of the financial upheaval the bill may cause for their predominantly small, more rural districts.
Kyle Kruse, superintendent of the St. Clair School District, said he worried the bill would create an “arms race” between districts that have more wealth to build newer facilities to attract students, like for athletics. and while the bill offers reimbursement options, some low-income families and students experiencing homelessness “in a lot of cases have nothing to reimburse,” Kruse said.
“In order to access the choice, you have to have resources to make it possible to get to the neighboring district, and those kids I’m thinking of simply don’t have the resources,” he said.
Jesse Uhlmeyer, superintendent of the Canton School District, said if he were to lose 5% of his district’s enrollment, that would translate to roughly $160,000 leaving the district.
“I don’t have driver’s education to cut. I don’t have a shop class to cut. I don’t have foreign language. I don’t have those programs like home economics that I can cut. So now I’m back to classroom teachers,” Uhlmeyer said, stressing that he needs more resources to hire more teachers for his small special education classroom, not less.
In the bill’s fiscal analysis, some districts described the challenges such a system would create, like “holding up housing” inside districts’ boundaries and making “long-range planning virtually useless” if reliable enrollment figures couldn’t be counted upon.
Sen. Lauren Arthur, D-Kansas City, said the bill may create a disincentive for taxpayers to increase their local funding for schools if they can simply choose to send their child to a neighboring district that’s already done so.
Pollitt noted that the bill originally sent local funds along with transferring students, but now those remain in the original resident district. He also stressed that districts that opt in to the program have the potential to receive students just as much as losing them.
“If a school district is offering the students and the parents the programs and opportunities that they want, I don’t believe those districts have anything to worry about,” Pollitt said, “because those folks are there because they want to be there.”