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School choice, open forums, variety of other education bills presented

by Anna Campbell | March 9, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

JEFFERSON CITY -- School choice bills have resurfaced this legislative session, as evidenced Monday in the Missouri House by the perfection of HB 1814, an open- enrollment bill sponsored by Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia.

The bill allows people who own property in another district and pay school taxes for three years in that district to send their children to that district for school. It also creates an open-enrollment program, which schools could voluntarily participate in, determining how many spots they would make available and in which grades.

The voluntary aspect, however, is just one-way, Pollitt said in response to a question about how one district would be affected.

"It's up to the receiving school district to decide whether they want to participate or not," Pollitt said. "Now, again, just being transparent, if they say, 'We're not participating,' that doesn't keep kids from leaving their district to a district that is participating. But yes, the receiving district makes that determination."

Under the bill, Pollitt said, each public school would have to let the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education know whether the school would participate, how many students they could take and which grades they would accept by Oct. 1. By Dec. 1, parents must apply to the new district and tell their current district they've filed for open enrollment. Superintendents at receiving districts must review applications in order of when they were received and inform parents whether their students secured a spot by Feb. 1.

Representatives expressed concerns about paying the cost of transportation or the possibility of picking and choosing preferred students instead of following the "first come, first served rule."

The bill passed 82-63, with two present.

On Tuesday, the House Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education met to discuss several education bills.

Rep. Richard West, R- Wentzville, presented HB 2575, which sets guidelines for open forums during school board meetings. The bill requires boards allow anyone to speak during open forum and provide each speaker at least five minutes.

Some representatives expressed concern about the five-minute minimum.

Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, D-Kansas City, said if everyone spoke for five minutes, 12 people would take an hour. For a popular topic, a public forum could go for several hours.

Rep. Gretchen Bangert, D-Florissant, said she'd seen big crowds show up to speak on some contentious issues.

"I'm telling you, some of these meetings, there were over 100 people there, and if they were given five minutes to speak, we would have been sitting there for eight hours just listening to that," she said.

West said he hoped the legislation would promote good communication between constituents and board members before a meeting.

Rep. Mike Haffner, R-Pleasant Hill, presented HB 2652, which would revamp the metrics used to accredit Missouri schools. Haffner said the current system places too little emphasis on student growth. It also recommends districts that fall in the bottom 5 percent of the achievement metrics be placed in an "innovation zone" to improve performance.

The bill received mixed feedback from representatives and witnesses, with proponents saying the change is badly needed, while opponents said the changes wouldn't solve the academic problems of the Missouri school system.

One representative, Marlene Terry, D-St. Louis, asked Haffner, "Do you think that it's high time for us to look at (the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education), and some of their policies and procedures, the way they operate?"

"Yes m'am," Haffner responded.

"I appreciate that comment," Terry said. "I do too. I think if we start making some changes with DESE, then some of our problems will be solved in the school system."

Rep. Brenda Shields, R-St. Joseph, presented HB 2150, called the "Blind Students' Rights to Independence, Training and Education Act," or BRITE Act. The bill provides guidelines for the teaching of braille and mobility training in local school districts.

Proponents of the bill, a few of whom are blind, said learning to read and write is essential for blind people, especially to enter the workforce.

Jefferson City resident Kathy Hurley, a grandmother to a blind student at Lewis and Clark Middle School, spoke in favor of the bill. Hurley said she had testified in previous years on the same bill and was asked by a representative, "Isn't it enough if she goes to school and she just listens to words?"

"I said, 'Would you be satisfied with that for your grandchild, to go to school and just listen, and never learn to read or write, not be able to put the words down and know how they're spelled?'"

Rep. Bishop Davidson, R- Republic, presented on HB 2618 and similar bill HB 2492, sponsored by Rep. Travis Fitzwater, R-Holts Summit, which would allow synchronous instruction to be treated the same way as in-person learning at adult high schools, treat them as a "secondary school system" and exempt them from child care licensure.

Representatives were largely complimentary of the adult high school system, but Rep. Gretchen Bangert, D-Florissant, questioned whether it could remove the child care component for parents at the high schools.

David Winton represented MERS Goodwill, which operates the adult high schools, and said the bill would not remove the requirement for the provision of child care at every adult high school, but it would open up the opportunity to work with existing childcare providers.

Rep. Patricia Pike, R-Adrian, presented three bills for the committee: HB 1469, which changes the calculation for reimbursement for local school district spending on high-needs students; HB 1471, which allows half-day schools to make up inclement weather days in half, rather than full days; and HB 2606, which would establish School Counseling Week.

The committee also passed an amended version of HB 2189, which would create a transparency portal where the public could view curriculum, professional development and source material; HB 1484, which would prohibit mandatory gender or sexual diversity training and teaching of concepts such as "one race or sex is inherently superior;" and HB 1835, which would require certain concepts to be taught as part of social studies curriculum, while restricting political activism and "race or sex stereotyping" as part of course content.

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