Competition can be a good thing. But competition is not always the best approach when it comes to public education.
Sure, schools squaring off on the gridiron, pitch or baseball field is a mainstay of our public education system. Rooting for a particular school can grow a community and bolster educational efforts within a school district. Those competitions among athletes and scholars can become bright spots in their educational experiences.
But when it comes to policies as to how education is administered, competition can have a darker side.
Under a bill being considered in the Missouri House, students could apply to transfer to another public school district in hopes of learning in a greener pasture.
Under House Bill 253, parents could apply to have their child leave a district without needing permission. The receiving district could choose to opt into the program, as well as to set limits on how many students it would take and at what grade level and in what building.
But the sending district has no say in the transfer and stands to suffer from it.
Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia, says his bill would help give parents some choices when it comes to public education. Thirty-four states have a policy allowing students to attend districts outside their resident areas, Pollitt said, and average participation ranges from 3 to 8 percent.
His bill sets a cap of 4 percent to the number of students that can transfer out of a district for the first three years and would create a public school choice fund of $80 million. The parent would be responsible for transportation, but the fund could supplement the costs of transportation incurred by a district or the parents.
"This country was built on competition," Pollitt said. "Why shouldn't a school district that wants to participate in sports be willing to participate under taxpayer dollars, why would they be afraid to compete in academic programs? We don't seem to have an issue with competing in other places."
The why is because open enrollment can create even more uneven playing fields for students and districts. Clearly, not all districts are on the same level; some have a much more affluent base, while others face some steep societal challenges.
Those students whose parents have the financial means are more likely to benefit from HB 253, as are districts that already have a more established financial environment.
For instance, a school district with a higher population of students on free and reduced lunches, a reflection of family income, could easily lose higher-achieving students to a neighboring district.
A St. Clair superintendent deftly explained what this might look like.
Kyle Kruse, superintendent of St. Clair R-13 School District, described his district as a "have-not" district with a low tax rate and assessed valuation.
"If this bill goes through, we expect to lose a hundred or more students," he said. "Some will go play softball at Sullivan because they have a state-contending team, some to Union because they have a beautiful gymnasium, some to Pacific because of their weight room facilities. Our football team was undefeated in a recent year in the regular season, but we'll lose kids because our facilities are not as nice, and we can't afford to fix that.
"We'll lose younger students because their parents find it more convenient to move them somewhere else, and as we're so state-dependent on the funding formula, we lose a hundred kids, our have-not district loses about $400,000."
And while the concept of a public school choice school fund may sound enticing, the state's reliability at consistently funding education is, at best, historically sporadic. And this fund's goal is only to help the receiving district. Nothing would be done to help the sending district, which would lose state funding based on student population and could face an even higher hill to climb to succeed academically.
Legislators should focus on improving the quality of education for all Missouri students instead of allowing some to profit from their ability to choose a different school district, while potentially making other students pay the price.
-- News Tribune