Open enrollment for Missouri schools not a debate, but a discussion of alternatives
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Open enrollment for Missouri schools not a debate, but a discussion of alternatives

Date: March 21, 2012
By: Cole Karr
State Capitol Bureau
Links: HB 1740

With the Turner versus Clayton Schools case ongoing in a Saint Louis County court and school accreditation issues in Saint Louis and Kansas City, the discussion of open school enrollment in the state is back. But, Missouri lawmakers are looking into other options.
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Wrap: The case would decide whether or not students in unaccredited Missouri public school districts  can attend any accredited district in an adjoining county.

The case arose after St. Louis County schools refused to take students from the unaccredited St. Louis City schools on worries of financial problems.

Warrensburg Republican Senator David Pearce is the chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

He explains open enrollment.

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Description: What it basically means is there's no district boundaries and students can go wherever they want in the state of Missouri.

Pearce says the concept is controversial and faces an uphill battle.

Saint Louis County Republican Senator Jane Cunningham says open enrollment would give Missouri families a say.

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Description: It allows a family or a parent to choose what school district their child goes to. And the funding for that child follows them to the school district that the parent chooses.

Missouri law requires parents to pay tuition if they want to send their child to a school outside their own district.

14 states have open enrollment laws.

Over the past three years, six open enrollment bills were introduced in the Missouri Legislature and died in committees.

Missouri National Education Association Legislative Director Otto Fajen says when it comes to cases of low quality education, the focus should be on improvements.

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Description: When we have areas where the districts and the students are struggling, we focus on improving what's going on in the school, not focusing our attention on sending kids somewhere else.

However, in light of accreditation issues in Saint Louis and Kansas City school districts, there is a discussion for alternatives.

Pearce says open enrollment may work under some circumstances.

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Description: If there is a situation where a district is having problems academically, that their not meeting their accreditation, I think that might be something we could take a look at.

Washington Republican Representative Scott Dieckhaus is looking at that exact problem.

He cites a Clayton, Missouri, school district survey to students in the unaccredited Saint Louis City district.

It shows more than 15-thousand St. Louis City students would transfer to adjoining Saint Louis County schools if given the chance.

Dieckhaus says St. Louis County schools cannot take all the students.

But, he says there's a way to open up 7-thousand more spots to those students.

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Description: The only way to get to that 15-thousand 740 number was to utilize the private school seats that are available.

Dieckhaus has proposed a plan to send students in unaccredited districts to private schools in adjoining counties.


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Description: The Passport Scholarship Program is a 40-million dollar capped program. And any donors to the program would receive a 60 percent tax credit, which means the program would generate 66.67 million dollars to help provide for a quality education for students who reside in unaccredited districts.

However, Fajen says the Constitution does not call for lawmakers to make a way for students to attend private schools.

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Description: Their number one job, under Article 9, Section 1A, is to establish and maintain the free public schools. They're essentially off task when they start looking at open enrollment that sends kids to something other than a public school.

Democratic Independence Representative Ira Anders says funding students to attend private schools teaching religion leads to issues with separation of church and state.

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Description: Maybe it's inadvertently, but there's going to be some. Not that that's bad, but we're taking tax dollars to basically support that school and that religion.

Proponents say open enrollment, charter schools and a tax credit scholarship program would have prevented unaccreditation in Saint Louis and Kansas City, saying it would allow for school competition.

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Description: I think any of those things would drive all participants including the traditional public schools to perform at a higher level.

But, Pearce says open enrollment could be detrimental to schools, especially in small rural districts.

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Description: The tendency would be with the big city... go to the school district with all the bells and whistles. And then what would happen is you would have fewer and fewer students staying in the small districts. And they would almost get in a death spiral.

Anders says open enrollment would not have helped the Kansas City school district solve their problems.
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Description: Because you're always going to have some kids who are not going to be able- whatever the reason: maybe they don't have transportation, maybe, you know, whatever. Maybe their parents just don't want them going clear far away from home.

Cunningham says the bottom line is family choice.

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Description: Families have choice. People have choice. Individuals, Americans, always appreciate choice. And so not to have choice in the educational industry eventually is going to go. Families want that choice and they will eventually get it.

But, Fajen says Missourians already, by law, have a choice.

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Description: As a parent, I can enroll my child... I can home school. I can send my kid to an independent private school. I can send 'em to a religious private school. And I also have a constitutional right to send my child- my children to the district we live in.

Lawmakers have not filed a comprehensive open enrollment bill this year.

The State Education Department declined to comment on the issue.

Reporting from the state Capitol... I'm Cole Karr.