A pair of education bills supported by school-choice advocates narrowly passed out of the Missouri House on Wednesday, overcoming a diminished GOP majority that had threatened to doom their chances earlier in the legislative session.
The bills, which deal with charter school funding and establishing an open enrollment system, earned 85 votes in support -- just three above the minimum 82 votes needed. They head to the Senate for consideration.
The first, sponsored by Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, would establish a formula by which school districts would transfer funds to charter schools based on student enrollment.
The second, sponsored by Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia, would create an open enrollment system to allow students to transfer to a school district outside of the one in which they reside.
A handful of Republican lawmakers who previously supported such measures have left the Legislature, requiring bill sponsors to make inroads with lawmakers who have historically opposed school choice proposals -- an issue that doesn't fall neatly along political, geographic or ideological lines.
Some of those swayed votes came from Democrats, who negotiated compromises that would provide carve outs for their school districts.
Rep. Mark Sharp, D-Kansas City, was among those who had voted against passing both proposals out of the House last year, but voted Wednesday in favor of the two bills.
Sharp voted in favor of Pollitt's open-enrollment bill after attaching an amendment that would allow Hickman Mills, a provisionally accredited school district in Sharp's district, to restrict the number of students who could leave in the program's first two years.
Sharp said he still opposes open-enrollment programs and had to weigh whether the bill would pass with or without him. Rather than voting against the bill, Sharp said he wanted to ensure that his district would be protected if it were to move forward.
"At the end of the day, I have to play worst-case scenario. Would it be nice to assume this bill wouldn't pass? It'd be nice to do that. But in this building, you can't do that. Because they pass legislation every day and ram it down our throats," Sharp said in reference to the Republican supermajority that controls the chamber.
Under Pollitt's bill, starting in the 2023-24 school year, families who own residential or agricultural property where they have paid at least $3,000 in school taxes for at least three years may apply to send up to four children to a district outside of the one in which they reside and where taxes are paid.
Schools would indicate by Oct. 1 whether they plan to accept students under the open-enrollment program for the following year. However, even if schools choose not to accept students, they cannot prevent students within their district from leaving. In the first two years of the program, districts would be permitted to restrict the number of students who transfer out to 5 percent of the previous year's enrollment.
"This program is designed to give parents a choice within the public school system, being taught by public school teachers, paying into the public school retirement system," Pollitt said Monday on the House floor. "Sounds like a win for public education."
A $60 million "Parent Public School Choice Fund" would also be established to cover state aid payments to districts. In a fiscal analysis of the bill, school districts noted it would be difficult to assess the program's financial impact until the number of students who will participate is known.
However, the Wellsville- Middletown R-1 School District shared it would make long-term planning "virtually useless" if enrollment numbers are in flux. And Kansas City Public Schools said the cost of children moving out of the district would be greater than the cost for those receiving, noting a pupil leaving the district would cost roughly $9,000 in state and local aid.
"Loss of a child or even two or three from a classroom does not allow the sending district to reduce costs of teachers, transportation, etc., causing the revenue hit to not be balanced with reduced expenditures," the fiscal analysis read.
Debate this week raised familiar concerns surrounding special-education students, segregation and consolidation.
Under the bill, schools would not be required to add staff, programs or space in order to accept transferring students -- meaning they could choose to not accept students with special needs if they don't have the capacity.
Pollitt pointed to a 2019 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, that found Wisconsin's open-enrollment program did not violate federal anti-discrimination laws after a group of students with disabilities who were rejected transfers sued.
School districts under court-ordered desegregation plans may also be exempt from participating, and schools would also be able to deny transfers if it conflicts with diversity plans that aim to avoid segregation.
"I see this leading to an extreme pitting of school districts against each other," said Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, D-Kansas City.
Rep. Ann Kelley, R-Lamar, said she was conflicted about Wednesday's vote, but ultimately voted in favor of sending the bill to the Senate. After voting to grant initial approval to the bill Monday, she said she faced pushback.
"The fear these school districts have is that they're going to end up closing," Kelley said of small school districts in her area.
It's the second year Pollitt has sponsored a version of the open-enrollment bill. Last year, the bill eked out of the House with the minimum 82 votes, but failed to gain traction in the Senate.
This year, Sen. Cindy O'Laughlin, R-Shelbina and chair of the Senate Education Committee, is also sponsoring a version of the bill. However, Pollitt said Tuesday that doesn't mean it's chances are secure on the other side of the building.
"We just have to be careful if it does get over there, what we put on it, because it's such a razor thin margin that there's a lot of poison pills that live here in the House and in the Senate," Pollitt said Tuesday. "You lose one vote on an 82 vote, you probably don't gain any. And so that's the issue that I have to be concerned about."
Richey's bill would transfer millions of dollars from public schools to charter schools in order to adjust for public schools in St. Louis and Kansas City receiving more funds per student than their charter counterparts.
Supporters of the legislation have advocated for lawmakers to "fix the glitch" to provide more equitable funding to charter schools, but opponents have argued it would divert public funds away from traditional public schools faced with higher expenses from costs like transportation and special education services.
Charter schools are independent public schools that receive state funds, but are not subject to all the same regulations as public schools and can be sponsored by entities other than an elected public school board. They have long been a controversial topic in the Legislature, and efforts to expand them beyond St. Louis and Kansas City have been resisted for years.
"This bill does not do anything regarding charter expansion," Richey said. "This bill will only make possible this funding fix in areas that currently can operate a charter school, which means that the vast majority of this state will not come under the purview of this bill."
A fiscal analysis for the bill estimates about $8.2 million would transfer from Kansas City Public Schools to charters and $18 million from St. Louis Public Schools to charters.
Dozens of parents from St. Louis Public Schools opposed the bill at a hearing last month, and the bill's impact on the district was the focus of this week's debate.
Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, D-St. Louis, was one of five Democratic members to vote in favor of the bill Wednesday. He had worked with Richey to attach amendments that would add a five-year delay to the bill's impact on St. Louis Public Schools and affirm an expected federal court ruling on how funds from a sales tax that stemmed from a decades-old desegregation agreement be used.
Aldridge said in years past he had voted against the bill, "because I thought charters were evil."
However, when visiting charter schools, Aldridge said, "I see Black kids that look like me, that look like the same Black kids at SLPS. I tell myself I have to do something."
While Aldridge said he wasn't completely satisfied with the bill, he was trying to work toward a solution that people on both sides of the issue could be pleased with, "because at the end of the day, it's about the kids."
Other St. Louis area lawmakers decried the bill, warning down the road it could negatively affect their schools, some of which are provisionally accredited and being eyed for charter expansions.
"This bill is bad news for my community," said Rep. Kevin Windham, D-Hillsdale, "and communities throughout the state."
The Missouri Independent is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.