The Missouri House of Representatives passed a bill last week that could very well drastically change the landscape of public education in the state and in Lincoln County.
By narrow margin of three votes (thanks largely to a couple dozen Republicans voting against the party), the House passed a bill that will allow students to transfer into school districts where they don’t live.
Currently, as most parents know, their children are tied to whatever district they reside, unless they are willing to pay a hefty tuition bill elsewhere.
Under proposed legislation, parents would be able to “apply” to send their children to other districts, which would have the option to accept the transfer.
The controversy over this proposal stems … not surprisingly … from money. While the personal property tax the student’s parents pay stay with the school district where they reside, state and federal funds would go to the transfer school.
Proponents of this measure call it a win for parents and ultimately school districts as well. Parents, for any reason, will have the option of sending their child to another district if they believe it will better suit their needs. And most of the time, that decision stems from a belief one school is lacking. So proponents contend by creating a competitive market for those state dollars, schools are more likely to push themselves to improve instead of possibly accepting a faulty status quo.
While that sounds great theoretically though, in practice, it’s not always that easy; and especially for the smaller, rural districts. The Silex, Elsberrys, Winfields of the world have a much harder time “improving” with the limited resources they have than a district like Troy.
Also, with smaller budgets, the financial impact of losing half a dozen students, and their accompanying funding, can be crippling. At $9K a student, if Elsberry loses just 10 students over 13 grades, that’s $90K out of their budget, or the salary of a couple teachers. Unfortunately, with those 10 students spread out over 13 grades, its not like Elsberry can have a concurrent reduction in staff to match that reduced revenue.
I’ve lived in two open-enrollment states, Iowa and Minnesota, and have witnessed first hand the benefits, and perils, of the system. It allows parents with a kid who may be bullied in one district to get their child a fresh start in another. Or if a parent has a child in need of additional resources, and they happen to live in a small district, they can enroll the student in a nearby larger one that might be able to better meet their special needs.
At the same time though, I’ve seen schools “recruiting” star athletes year after year to maintain sports dynasties. But sadder yet is what it will do to your small districts.
I guarantee five years after open enrollment, Silex, Elsberry and Winfield will no longer have independent school districts. At least not all of them. What you will see is schools merging, or having “grade-share” where the high school is in one town, the middle school in another and each town retaining an elementary school.
This has happened all over rural Iowa and Minnesota, resulting in a lot of acronym names like the RTR Knights (Ruthton-Tyler-Russell) in southwest Minnesota or one of my favorites in Iowa, Ar-We-Va High, representing the small towns of Arcadia, Westside and Vail.
In my experience, small towns take a lot of pride in their schools, and losing them can be a death blow to a community, especially if it was already struggling for population and commerce. That’s the dangerous undertow to this bill that goes beyond the impact on education and students that may be being disregarded.
But it shouldn’t be and residents in these small towns especially better let speak up now because if this passes, your school, no matter how strong today, may be in big trouble tomorrow.
Gregory Orear is the publisher of The Lincoln County Journal, The Elsberry Democrat, The Troy Free Press and News-Time. He can be reached at email@example.com
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