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Open enrollment in Missouri's public schools would provide choice, but only for some

Martin Bureau
AFP/Getty Images
When asked why he drafted HB 253, Rep. Pollitt (R-Sedalia) told Up To Date he's never understood why an "artificial boundary" dictates where a student can go to school.

Supporters of Missouri House Bill 253, which proposes an open enrollment system in the state's public schools, say the legislation gives parents the right to choose where their students are educated. But critics on both sides of the aisle have raised concerns. They say open enrollment would shut down struggling districts and further segregate schools.

A law that would create an open enrollment system in Missouri public schools is making its way through the General Assembly.

Lawmakers in the House voted earlier this month to advance House Bill 253, which would allow public school students to enroll outside their residential districts.

“I believe this is a pro-public education bill. It gives parents a choice within the public school system. But there's a lot of limits on this bill,” Rep. Brad Pollitt (R-Sedalia), who introduced the legislation, told Up To Date on Tuesday.

School districts that opt out of open enrollment wouldn’t have to accept transferring students. However, up to 3% of students in any district, regardless of its open enrollment status, would be able to leave each year. State and federal dollars would follow the students to the new schools, but local money would stay in the home districts.

“It’s not people in Jefferson City making decisions in their district. The taxpayers of that district have that power in this bill. And if every year 3% of those folks want to leave a district, then why are we holding them captive in that district?” Pollitt said.

Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern (D-Kansas City) took issue with Pollitt’s proposal.

“What open enrollment is really going to do is just create more winners and losers in our educational system. And it's really just going to benefit those who are able to navigate another level of bureaucracy,” Nurrenbern told Up To Date.

Nurrenbern, who taught at North Kansas City High School and University Academy, said she’s seen how charter schools have negatively impacted Kansas City’s public schools over the last few decades.

“When schools are forced to shutter their doors and place boards over their windows — that has a detrimental impact on that entire neighborhood,” she said.

Nurrenbern said she’s extremely concerned about how open enrollment would affect students with Individualized Educational Plans. IEPs ensure a child with a disability attending a public school gets specialized instruction and services.

But under HB 253, districts wouldn’t be required to accept IEP students.

“The receiving district can refuse you if they say, ‘Well, we don't have space in our program for you,’” Nurrenbern said.

“We already know that our school districts are segregated by race and class. Thankfully, they're not segregated by ability, because schools have to accept all students, and that's one of the most fundamental things about our education system,” she said.

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When I host Up To Date each morning at 9, my aim is to engage the community in conversations about the Kansas City area’s challenges, hopes and opportunities. I try to ask the questions that listeners want answered about the day’s most pressing issues and provide a place for residents to engage directly with newsmakers. Reach me at steve@kcur.org or on Twitter @stevekraske.
Claudia Brancart is an Up To Date producer for KCUR 89.3. She graduated from Pitzer College in Los Angeles where she majored in World Literature and Studio Art. You can reach her at claudiab@kcur.org.
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