JEFFERSON CITY — Open enrollment for Missouri schools is being given another try in the Missouri legislature.
An 82-67 vote in the House on Tuesday gave initial approval to HB 253 despite 24 Republicans voting against.
On an 85-69 vote Wednesday morning, the House gave final approval and moved the bill to the Senate for consideration.
The bill was amended during debate to place a permanent cap of 3% on student transfer volume and to prohibit considerations of race in transfer acceptances.
Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson, underscored the stance of opponents, citing whether “the picking of winners and losers” will come to pass if open enrollment should become law.
Democratic lawmakers speaking in opposition focused on the needs of special education students, under-served and underprivileged students and those school districts from which students might depart.
Republicans in support of the bill spoke of the power of competition to improve outcomes, the durability and attractiveness of small schools, and the need for a new approach as more valuable than risk.
Rep. Jeff Knight, R-Lebanon, had an almost exasperated tone late in discussion, stating, “if you (a school) have more than 3% of students that want to leave every year, fix that problem.”
HB 253 allocates $80 million to fund additional transportation for cross-district students broadly and to assist with the further accommodation of transferred special education students.
House Democrats, however, were not convinced this is enough to guarantee the equal treatment of students. Several members from both sides of the aisle questioned the real power of $80 million.
Rep. Gary Bonacker, R-House Springs, described the $80 million as “a waste of money,” especially when considering “programs for special needs kids that are upwards of $50,000 to $100,000 for a single special needs student.”
Democrats predicted a slew of consequences should the status quo be upended by open transfers, such as disparities in educational quality, the destabilization of communities due to school declines, and the unequal treatment of students due to selective transfer acceptances.
Rep. Marlene Terry, D-St. Louis, said, “If we want to help our schools, let’s properly fund them.”
“Our communities deserve, and our children deserve quality education” and “we deserve to be given that by any means necessary,” she said.
Senate committee considers school choice bills
A separate school choice bill, Senate Bill 226, was considered by the Senate Education Committee. Sponsored by Sen. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, the bill would authorize a tax credit “equal to one hundred percent of tuition costs” for a parent sending their child to a private school or public school other than their own.
Schroer wrote in a Monday Twitter post that his bill would put kids first and put an end to the “one size fits all” philosophy of public education, which he said handcuffs families to their zip code.
Schroer said in committee that when he was in third grade in Ferguson, a teacher assaulted him and his parents moved him to a private school to keep him safe. His parents had to take extra hours at work to afford it. Schroer said he didn’t realize until he got to private school how far behind his public school had been on teaching core concepts.
“I was the kid that grew up in the bad part of town,” he said. “I was the kid that wouldn’t have had that choice if my parents didn’t work extra, and as a result, I ended up being the first member of my family to go to college, go to law school and ultimately serve this body.”
Jamie Morris, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, said it is his organization’s “basic view” that parents “are the first and foremost educators of their children,” and Schroer’s bill would give parents the opportunity to guide their children’s education.
If adopted, the tax credit would cost the state up to an estimated $1.3 billion a year starting in Fiscal Year 2025.
Otto Fajen, legislative director of the Missouri National Education Association, said the cost was too high and would put the legislature’s budget committees into an “impossible situation.”
School choice bills sent to full Senate
The committee also passed three bills that would expand school choice options. These bills now move to the Senate floor.
- Senate Bill 255 creates a fund parents can use to finance sending their children to a private school. It is sponsored by Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville.
- Senate Bill 304 would allow charter schools to operate in charter counties and municipalities of at least 30,000 people. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring.
- Senate Bill 360 would remove a cap on the cumulative tax credit amounts granted by the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program. This is sponsored by Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester.