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For the second time in a month, the Missouri House of Representatives narrowly passed a bill Thursday aimed at expanding school choice in the state.

House Bill 543, sponsored by state Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia, would allow public school students to transfer from the school district they reside in to a different district, provided they have a parent or guardian who owns property and pays a school tax in the new district.

The bill, which would go into effect beginning in the 2022-23 school year, would give school districts discretion over whether to participate in the transfer program and how many transfers to allow each year.

Students transferring to a new school district would be counted toward that district's average daily attendance, which is used to calculate the distribution of state aid among districts.

The bill advanced to the Senate by a vote of 82-68, despite vocal opposition from House Democrats as well as a lack of unanimous support from Republicans.

Last month, House Republicans approved another bill, by a similarly narrow 82-71 margin, intended to incentivize private donors to give money to nonprofits that would then create scholarships for students to attend private schools.

Another contentious school choice bill, currently held up in the Senate, would allow charter schools to operate in any municipality with a population of more than 30,000. Charter schools in the state are currently limited to Kansas City and St. Louis.

"This bill gives our parents and students a choice within the public school system," Pollitt said in arguing for HB 543 on Thursday. "And I would ask this body: How is that bad for kids?"

Democrats answered forcefully, saying they feared the new bill would be utilized primarily by wealthier families and that it would have a disproportionately negative impact on funding for already struggling school districts.

"It destroys the schools in our areas," said state Rep. Kimberly-Ann Collins, D-St. Louis.

State Rep. Mark Sharp, D-Kansas City, said he feared the bill would spell doom for school districts like the Kansas City district he grew up in. The Hickman Mills School District, he said, "is already so close to getting things together," but would be threatened by House Bill 543.

"My fear (is) what happens to those families that don't have the resources to take their students to other school districts," Sharp said.

Pollitt responded by explaining a provision of his bill that would provide a transportation stipend for students who qualify for free and reduced-priced lunch and added that "it's nice to have conversations amongst two individuals that care so deeply about our public schools and have the right heart to make tough decisions."

"My fear has not been alleviated," Sharp replied. "This bill, I think, will eventually be the final blow to the Hickman Mills School District. And what is a community without a school district?"

The work of the Missouri News Network is written by Missouri School of Journalism students and editors for publication by Missouri Press Association member newspapers.

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