JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri students and their families could soon be allowed to go to school outside the district they live in. 

A day after members spent two hours debating the open enrollment bill, the measure barely escaped the House, receiving just three more votes than needed to pass. The big concern among members is the effect this will have on rural school districts and communities, causing them to consolidate or even close. 

Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia, said allowing students to pick the public school of their choice creates rivalry between districts, which is a good thing. 

“This bill does put the decision making in districts into the hands of the local taxpayers who have children in that district,” Pollitt said. “I personally believe this is a very pro-public-school bill.”

Those against House Bill 253, said during debate that this is going to leave some districts behind. 

“There are too many children relying on public education, and we cannot afford to open up these sink holes around the state,” Rep. David Tyson Smith, D-Columbia, said. “We can open up sink holes around the state where people are devastated and it’s not worth the risk.”

Under the legislation, districts would not be required to opt-in, but the number of students that can transfer would be based on the previous school year. The language in the bill says that districts can allow 3% of the school’s previous year’s enrollment to move away. 

“At the 3%, it will be something about a $1 million,” Rep. Greg Bonacker, R-House Springs, said. “

By allowing students to transfer, the funds follow the students, which could wind up hurting the districts students leave. 

“The first thing that will happen is cutting staff, which would get us to larger classroom sizes,” Bonacker said. “I could make guesses that the services that would attract students to our districts would be the one that are at highest risk of being eliminated.”

As for students who need special education services, the bill says receiving districts would not be required to accommodate them. Pollitt said on the floor during Tuesday’s debate that schools could reject a child if the district doesn’t have the staff or program in place. 

“We can come back any year and revisit it but why not be bold, try a small step and see if it doesn’t improve the quality of education in the State of Missouri,” Rep. Bill Owen, R-Springfield, said. “Just the idea of creating a little bit of competition is going to make everybody’s district better.”

The “Public School Open Enrollment Act” would prohibit student athletes who transfer to wait a year before becoming eligible at their new school. 

“I’ve heard from multiple teachers and superintendents and districts that don’t want this,” Rep. Jo Doll, D-Webster Grovers, said. “If we don’t think that rural and small districts are going to suffer from this, that is incredibly naive.”

The legislation now heads to the Senate, where the past two years similar bills have died.