‘School choice’ becomes a legislative priority for Missouri’s education department in 2022

(The Center Square) – One word from one state agency is raising eyebrows throughout Missouri.

Dozens of organizations publish thousands of words outlining priorities for the upcoming Missouri legislative session. Some seem to only change the dates on documents as they annually work to influence lawmakers to act on their initiatives.

But when the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) used the word “choice” in its list for 2022 objectives, it drew attention.

The fifth of five priorities announced earlier this week by DESE was “Providing Access to Opportunity.” The first point under the heading: “The State Board of Education suggests that DESE work with stakeholders to examine best practices for voluntary open enrollment, allowing students to attend the public school of their choice regardless of attendance boundaries.”

“I am surprised, but I think it’s great,” said Susan Pendergrass, director of research and education policy at the Show-Me Institute. “I’m happy to see it’s a priority of the state board. I just hope it gets implemented with integrity, that every parent in the state has this option, and that it’s not limited in any way.”

State Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, D-Kansas City and a member of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, was startled to see the item.

“That was really the one that shocked me,” Nurrenbern said in an interview with The Center Square. “Everything else was expected. But when I got to the open public school enrollment, that’s one that I really questioned.”

State Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters and a member of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, said passage of the Missouri Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Program, a bill he sponsored giving taxpayers a state tax credit for a donation to an educational assistance organization, signaled the beginning of DESE beginning work on school choice.

“I thought it was certainly notable, especially coming on the heels of the legislature passing the first school choice bill in a couple decades,” Christofanelli said in an interview with The Center Square. “I think the department is finally waking up to the fact that parents want options. They want to pick the school that’s the best choice for their children’s needs. I think it’s a positive development that they’re starting to respond to that demand.”

In an interview with The Center Square, DESE commissioner Margie Vandeven said the legislative priority aligns with the agency’s focus.

“That fifth point is really rolled into our mission,” Vandeven said. “Our mission has been providing access to opportunity. When we look at what’s happening across the state, we’re finding there’s not always an achievement gap but more an opportunity gap. (The state board) is trying to address how we make sure every child has access to opportunity through our public education systems.”

There are two additional points along with the school choice item:

  • The State Board of Education supports continued full funding of the Foundation Formula, increased funding of the school transportation formula, and an adjustment to the state adequacy target to ensure continued growth in the Foundation Formula.
  • The State Board of Education also supports legislation to incent school districts to share educational costs.

In addition to reforming a public education model created in the 19th century, Christofanelli said DESE’s priorities are an acknowledgement of structural inefficiency. He noted the disparity in Missouri’s 500 school districts serving six million people while Florida has one school district in each of its 60 counties serving 18 million people.

“You can see how much of an outlier we are on levels of administration within our public school system,” Christofanelli said. “I think it’s important to start discussing consolidation of school districts and layers of administration across multiple school districts. It will be a way to maximize our education resources and make sure the dollars we invest are spent on kids and not bureaucracy.”

Vandeven said a growing list of questions on a wide range of issues on DESE’s fifth priority must be answered by the legislature.

“Much of what would have to occur needs to take place in the capitol and it is highly complex,” Vandeven said. “It is not an easy solution by any means. There are funding mechanisms and a number of other aspects that need to be looked at. But we continue to hear about this need to make sure children are served to the best of their abilities, whatever that looks like. This just seemed like something that was worth exploring and discussing.”

Instead of open enrollment, Nurrenbern said providing proper levels of funding should be the focus. She also said students in poverty and those with disabilities will be neglected if school districts focus on enrollment numbers.

“I think the larger narrative is we have got to invest more in education and locally in school districts,” Nurrenbern said. “For many on my side of the aisle, it is absolutely imperative we maintain the integrity of our school districts and funding must be a part of that. Obviously, the foundation formula is important. Wealthy school districts continue to pour more into schools where others are stuck because they don’t have the property tax base to draw from. And we know educating students in poverty simply takes more money.”

In addition to funding, Pendergrass said school choice discussions force state and local administrators and legislators to consider parent perspectives.

“Is that power circle starting to break up?” Pendergrass asked. “I hope so because I haven’t felt they’ve had parents’ and families’ best interest at heart. They’ve done a lot of things that just puts power within the system. I hope it’s the dawning of a new day across Missouri where the folks in charge realize parents need to be at the table in a real way. They need to have the ability to make choices of how and where their children are educated.”

Vandeven emphasized the importance of “authentic” parent engagement and involvement in successful educational outcomes.

“Obviously, it really does need to be a partnership,” Vandeven said. “The teacher is the teacher in the classroom and parents work in concert with them. We want our teachers to support our parents and what they do at their home. Parents are key to success.”

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