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Bipartisan literacy bill grows to include open school enrollment 

A bipartisan bill aimed at improving student literacy morphed into an omnibus education package after it was passed out of the House Monday night with amendments dealing with open enrollment, school protection officers and school board meetings.

Senate Bill 681, sponsored by Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina, initially aimed to boost students’ reading comprehension by requiring schools to start assessing students on their reading levels in kindergarten and ensuring students who are behind receive additional support.

The version of the bill that was first sent to the House was 24 pages long. But it ballooned to 96 pages after dozens of separate bills were added in the House Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education.

From there, it grew even further after about two dozen amendments were added Monday night, including establishing an open enrollment program that would allow students to attend a school district outside of the one in which they reside.

After over two hours of debate, the bill ultimately passed by a vote of 91 to 44. It now goes back to the Senate, where a conference committee to work through the changes is expected.

O’Laughlin said Monday night she hadn’t yet seen all the amendments added in the House but some will likely have to be removed for the bill to find success in the Senate.

“I went down and talked to a few people and said, ‘Look, this bill is important. We have a lot of agreement on it. And if you feel you have to add something, go ahead,’” O’Laughlin said, “‘But if it threatens the bill in any way, when it gets over here we’ll have to take it off. And I’m just being honest with you.’”

One of those provisions on the chopping block will likely be the open enrollment program, O’Laughlin said.

“I don’t think open enrollment can make it over here this year,” O’Laughlin said. “I think maybe in the future. There’s a lot of things about it that I like.”

Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia, described the provision as the “new and improved” version of a standalone bill he filed to establish an open enrollment system in Missouri.

His bill narrowly passed out of the House in March with 85 votes — just three above the minimum needed — but it has yet to be heard on the Senate floor.

While schools can decide whether to opt-in to the open enrollment program that would start in the 2023-24 school year, they could not prevent their students from choosing to leave. Under Pollitt’s standalone bill, schools would be permitted to restrict the number of students who transfer out in the first two years to 5% of the previous year’s enrollment.

In his amendment added to Monday’s bill, that period would be extended to four years at 3% each year.

Under the bill, students who qualify for free and reduced price meals who transfer to a district that shares a border with their resident district will receive transportation services or can be reimbursed for the costs of transportation through a $60 million fund the bill will establish.

“I still am really nervous about this bill,” said Rep. Paula Brown, D-Hazelwood. “I’m still going to vote yes.”

But others voiced their concerns Monday over fears the bill would consolidate smaller districts, lead to segregation and discriminate against students with special needs.

Under the bill, schools would not be permitted to add classroom space, teachers or programs to accommodate transferring students — meaning that schools can deny special education students if the school determines it can’t provide the necessary services.

“I’m just concerned the bill might be a blanket discrimination against all children with disabilities,” said Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury. “And I don’t want to see that.”

If the open enrollment program is open to students, it should also be open to those with disabilities, said Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka.

“If we’re so worried about kids with disabilities, then that tax dollar that mom and dad is paying,” Bailey said, “they should be able to take that child to where that child gets the best help regardless of zip code. I thank the other side of the aisle for making the best argument for school choice.”

Other amendments added Monday ranged from allowing additional school staff to act as school protection officers who could carry firearms on campus to allowing parents to sue school districts that violate provisions regarding public speakers at school board meetings. Multiple violations could result in a school district’s state funding being withheld until the district is in compliance.

O’Laughlin has filed legislation on reading comprehension for the last several years, and it gained new significance this year after senators, particularly the women of the senate, came together with the aim to improve students’ literacy rates. Last year, women senators collaborated to publish a children’s book on the 36 women who have ever served in the chamber.

The bill passed out of the Senate unanimously, and also includes Sen. Lauren Arthur’s legislation that would allow schools to be granted “innovation waivers” that would allow them to be exempt from certain state regulations as they work to reach a goal, such as improving students’ readiness for employment or increasing teacher compensation.

Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, D-Kansas City, praised the underlying bill’s aims and raised that O’Laughlin had previously expressed she didn’t want amendments added to the bill that could imperil its chances.

“While yes we see that we have just a few days to go…” Nurrenbern said of the impending end of session, “I hope that we can keep this a clean bill, a bill that’s good for all the kids in the state of Missouri.”

Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport and the bill’s handler in the House, acknowledged that, “there might be some amendments that might cause some friction.” But he stressed that with only two weeks left in the session, there were few opportunities for House bills to make their way to the other chamber.

While it’s likely the bill will change when the Senate and House go to conference to work through the bill’s changes, O’Laughlin said it was gratifying to see the underlying literacy bill make it this far. 

“I’ve already talked to people who will be on the conference committee, both sides, and said, ‘We’ve put this bill together as a unit and reached agreement, and we’re going to do that all the way through,’” O’Laughlin said. “So we’ll see what happens.”

This article by Tessa Weinberg is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.

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