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School open enrollment push raises concerns

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Monett R-1 School Superintendent Dr. John Jungmann, at left, addressed a public meeting Tuesday night about issues involved with the effort to push open enrollment in the Missouri legislature this session. Patrons, district employees and school board members asked questions and provided commentary during the meeting. [Times Photo by Murray Bishoff]
During a special public meeting last night, Monett R-1 School District officials expressed serious concern over a push in the Missouri General Assembly for open enrollment. Ramifications could include a loss of local control over tax dollars, uncontrolled expenses and the possible collapse of small rural districts facing enrollment declines.

Superintendent Dr. John Jungmann said the concept of open enrollment is fundamentally simply. Students would be allowed to attend any school district regardless of where they live. Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Iowa already have open enrollment.

Studies in states with open enrollment show only 4 or 5 percent of student populations move in open enrollment. With 900,000 students in Missouri, moving 36,000 to 45,000 students would be a relatively small number, Jungmann said. Some districts could see 10 to 15 percent population movement.

If Monett had an influx of that many students, Board President JD Roberts said the carefully developed 10-year plan for the district would not have enough facilities to accommodate that many more students. Nor is it clear, under the undefined rules of open enrollment, that the students would have to stay. Board member Dave Beckett said the district could hire more teachers only to see the students move again, leaving the obligation to pay employees.

Jungmann detailed a wide range of issues that surface with open enrollment. Funding would be one of the most crucial questions to resolve. In Kansas, for example, the state funds 75 percent of public education, making it easier to move money than in Missouri, where the state average is about 38 percent.

With the current funding system in place in Missouri, local patrons pay a large portion of school costs. Open enrollment would allow students whose families paid no property taxes in the district to attend school in Monett. The school would receive state money for each child, but that amount would not cover facilities expenses.

Families could live in a district that has lower taxes than Monett and send students to the Monett district without paying more, Jungmann said. Under one theory, the tax money paid by the family should follow the student. A family sending a child to another district would have no say in how their money was spent, nor could they vote in a school election.

"Even the loss of a few students could have a major impact on a district," Jungmann said. "Just losing a few kids could mean the closing down of a district with 100 students."

Proponents argue that competition will force schools to improve and compete for students. Jungmann said there is no evidence that open enrollment improves student achievement. Parents instead look at convenience and proximity as prime reasons to move students, as well as access to extracurricular activities.

The push for open enrollment is coming from retired St. Louis investment banker Rex Sinquefield, who has lined up support among major leadership in the legislature. Jungmann felt the push for changing state law would be made over the next two years.

Sinquefield has started 100 political action committees to funnel money to candidates. He spent more than $10 million of his own money to pass Proposition A in the November 2010 election. Board member Rod Anderson said Sinquefield will most likely try putting a statewide proposition on the ballot if the current effort falls short.

Jungmann said open enrollment also poses transportation concerns for districts, which are required to provide transportation for students living more than three miles from the school. Sending buses into nearby urban districts would not be nearly as cost prohibitive as picking up distant children in rural settings.

Open enrollment could open the door for creation of a "super power" in sports. Jungmann said it would benefit some districts to recruit students out of other districts.

Having out-of-town players on ball teams could raise resentment on behalf of parents whose children waited for years for a chance to play and cannot because of a late arrival.

Special education could have the greatest financial impact on a district if open enrollment is allowed, Jungmann said. According to Jungmann, it usually costs twice as much to educate a special needs child, a cost the local district is obliged to bear.

If a district has a particularly good special services program or if neighboring districts have poor programs, a district can become a magnet for special needs students.

"The bottom line is if you spend more money on special education, you don't have as much to spend on other programs," Jungmann said. "You could be forced to reduce staff or ask for higher taxes to pay for the special education program."

Another consequence of open enrollment could be the segregation of students from a specific ethnic group or economic status.

"Public schools should encourage diversity," Jungmann said.

Local legislators have supported area school districts in opposing open enrollment in the past, Jungmann said, and will need to hear from the public again to solidify their stand.

Jungmann welcomes calls from patrons who have questions about open enrollment. The superintendent can be contacted by phone at 235-7422 or by e-mail at jjungmann@monett.k12.mo.us.

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