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Next Steps: Open enrollment for public schools

As elected officials vacate Jefferson City and return to their families and jobs, The Missouri Times is taking a look at legislative priorities that may headline next year’s session. The “Next Steps” series will showcase certain legislative issues and take a look ahead at what could come next.

Amid growing contention in Missouri schools — from mask mandates to critical race theory — a bill on deck for next session aims to increase choices for parents and students.  

Rep. Brad Pollitt intends to file a bill that would allow public school students to transfer to any participating district — even if they do not reside there within the district. 

Schools would have the option of participating in the practice, and each participating district would establish the number of transfer students it would allow per year and develop its own waitlist policies. 

Students would be allowed one transfer per year, and transportation would be left up to parents. A $30 million fund would also be established to reimburse transportation costs for participating low-income families.   

Pollitt, a Republican, sponsored similar legislation last session. While it passed through the House by a narrow margin, it didn’t progress beyond a hearing in the upper chamber. 

Despite its stagnation, Pollitt said he believed the time is right for increased school choice for Missourians.

“This was first thrown around 15 years ago in Missouri by different legislators, and the bill had pretty good traction for the first time when it was brought up this year,” Pollitt told The Missouri Times. “I’m hoping to continue that momentum. When political battles spill into the halls of our schools, this gives families the choice to look at different public schools and the material they teach.”

Reception was mixed during the bill’s time in committee: Several school administrators testified against the measure, alleging the change would put undue stress on districts, divert tax revenue away from communities, and allow Missouri students living near state lines to transfer to neighboring states. 

“This bill will cause school consolidation due to the financial hardship it will impose on districts of all sizes,” Jeannie Jenkins, superintendent of the Spring Bluff School District, told the committee. “If we are truly wanting to provide students with options, the focus should be on improving the districts where they reside, building strong communities in which these students will continue to support as adults.”

Pollitt said he spent much of the interim visiting with educators to clarify the intent of the bill and explain its nuances and reported a warmer response this time around. While he agreed consolidation was possible in some areas, Pollitt said many districts would avoid any negative effects. 

“I can’t promise there won’t be an impact on some areas, but if you have a strong school there’s nothing to worry about,” he said. “The demographics in rural areas are changing, no question, but this bill isn’t the reason for that. If a school offers ample opportunities to help students become successful citizens and individuals, I believe this might actually make them increase in population. I don’t believe this bill is a threat to those strong districts.”

Pollitt said he had spoken with officials from Iowa — which implemented open enrollment in 1989 — while working on the legislation. Though they reported some consolidation over the years, Pollitt said it had not been a major concern. 

With 44 states allowing open enrollment in some capacity, Pollitt said he believed Missouri could join their number soon. 

“I made no bones that open enrollment would be one of my biggest goals when I ran for office,” Pollitt said. “I believe this bill can enhance competition on a level playing field and offer parents a choice in their kids’ education, and I’m ready to go through this again next year.”