JEFFERSON CITY - Most Missouri public school students would be allowed to enroll in any district they please beginning with the 2011-12 school year under a bill heard by the Senate Education Committee.
Although the issue has long been pushed by metro-area lawmakers, it was a rural Missouri Senator who sponsored the bill before the committee Wednesday.
Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, cited what he called some districts in New Madrid County "that don't make sense" as a reason to enact what is commonly known as "open enrollment." He said students across the vast majority of the state are required to attend schools within their district, which can create a logistical nightmare if they live on the edge of one district, where a school outside their zone could be closer.
Mayer and other witnesses who spoke before the Senate Education Committee, said open enrollment would create and foster competition and motivate flagging schools to improve, especially in the realm of special-needs children.
"Open enrollment would allow families that are not satisfied with the education that they are receiving to look around at other schools in the area," said Earl Simms, state director of the Children's Educational Council, which represents children with physical and mental disabilities. "They might find that some other district has better programs for their child."
Mayer said students, or their parents, would be financially responsible for transport to and from their new schools. Witnesses speaking against the bill said that would only favor those with parents who have the means or time to shuttle their children to schools or who are active enough to even think to seek a relocation.
Carl Peterson, the former president of the Ferguson-Florissant School District in north St. Louis County, spoke against the bill. He said his wife, an elementary school teacher in the district, had a class where all but four students couldn't read at grade level. He said only parents of gifted or at least above-level students had approached his wife about open enrollment and that would be the case across the whole state.
"This bill will hurt the education of at-risk children because the children who get out of my wife's class will be the four who weren't having a problem," he said. "Open enrollment will only allow the wealthiest students to transfer."
Another concern opponents had is that too many students might leave rural districts, forcing consolidation and the loss of teachers in economically destitute areas. The bill would apply to 523 public school districts, with the exceptions of St. Louis and Kansas City. St. Louis City Public Schools currently has a limited desegregation plan already in place with some districts within St. Louis County.
Mayer told the Senate Education Committee that provisions were put in the bill that would prevent parents from moving students back and forth between districts. When Sen. Norma Champion, R-Springfield, expressed concerns about the impact open enrollment would have on state funding, Mayer said those details were still being worked out.
Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, was the most vocal member of the commitee in supporting the bill. After a different witness said open enrollment wouldn't address inherent problems with public schools, such as overcrowding in cities and dwindling enrollment in rural areas, Nodler said competition would help students, which is the goal of education.
"I've always heard from the education community that it should be about the kids," Nodler said. "If we can help the lives of even one child, then this is something that is worth passing."
The committee took no immediate action on the measure. The committee's chair, Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, said he was unsure when the bill would come up again for a full vote to send it to the Senate floor.