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Missouri House passes bill allowing schools to enroll students who don't live in their district

An empty first grade classroom on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023, at Nance Elementary School in the North Pointe neighborhood of St. Louis.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
An empty first grade classroom on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023, at Nance Elementary School in the North Pointe neighborhood of St. Louis.

The legislation, which in previous years passed the Missouri House but died in the Senate, would allow public school students to enroll in a participating school district that they do not reside in. School districts would be able to choose whether to accept non-resident students.

The Missouri House passed legislation on Wednesday establishing an open enrollment program for the state’s public schools.

The bill, which passed 86-73, in a closer vote than normal in the Republican supermajority-led chamber, is the first one passed by the House this session.

“I ask the body to have faith in their local districts. This puts the decision of the local taxpayers on how their district may look in the future,” said bill sponsor Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia. “This keeps all the public school students that are presently in public schools in the public school system.”

Through the legislation, families would be given the option to send their children to school districts where they do not reside. Students can only transfer once each school year, but could return to their original district.

School districts would be able to choose whether to accept non-resident students. They also can set the number of students they would be willing to enroll.

However, school districts would not be able to opt-out of students leaving their district. The bill does allow schools to restrict the number of outgoing students to 3% of the previous school year’s enrollment.

Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, D-Kansas City, worried how this bill would affect smaller rural school districts.

“Open enrollment will leave small school rural districts fighting for their lives against larger rural districts that have more resources and it will lead to district consolidation,” Nurrenbern said.

Under the bill, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or a different entity, would also be required to develop a model open enrollment transfer policy that school districts must adopt, whether they participate in the program or not. School boards would be able to modify that policy.

The cost of the legislation is roughly $80 million in general revenue for fiscal year 2026, according to the bill’s fiscal analysis note. That $80 million will go towards a Parent Public School Choice Fund, which could go toward transportation needs.

The bill now goes to the Missouri Senate, where it has died in previous sessions. However, Senate Republican leadership has said that education choice, which could include open enrollment, is a priority for them this session.

If the bill were to pass both chambers, the open enrollment program would not begin until the 2025-2026 school year.

Speaking in favor of the legislation during debate Tuesday, Rep. Ed Lewis, R-Moberly, said many districts in Missouri already have a mobility rate greater than 3%.

“You're just allowing those people who don't want to necessarily move locations of their house, but want to attend a district that's adjacent to them,” Lewis said.

Multiple Democrats spoke against the legislation, including Rep. Marlene Terry, D-St. Louis County, who said the bill would ruin her community.

“Until we come up with something that's going to fix all our public schools where no child would have to leave their community to get an education, or what you call a better education…this is a problem,” Terry said.

Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Sarah Kellogg is St. Louis Public Radio’s Statehouse and Politics Reporter, taking on the position in August 2021. Sarah is from the St. Louis area and even served as a newsroom intern for St. Louis Public Radio back in 2015.
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