Reimagining Education

Open Enrollment Would Help Special Needs Students

The Joint Education Committee of the Missouri General Assembly is currently studying the issue of open enrollment during their interim session meetings. Open enrollment is a policy that a student would be able to transfer to a school in another district at the will of that student’s parent. Depending on each state’s law, the student is accepted into the new district based on room, by lottery or taking into account other factors such as travel or financial hardships. Families seek to do this for a variety of reasons.

In some cases, as Meta, MO mother Lois Wankum testified to the committee at their October 20th hearing, students are much closer to a school in an adjacent district than the one to which they are assigned. In other cases, parents are simply looking to remove their child from a failing school district and enroll them in ones that are better performing. For many special needs parents this policy could unlock the doors of educational opportunity for their child that is trapped in a district that does not have the appropriate services to help their child.

Open enrollment would allow for these parents, who often do not have the means to send their child to a private education service such as TouchPoint or Giant Steps, to move their child to a district that may have better services. For example, the Rockwood School District in suburban St. Louis County gave an excellent presentation on their special needs services at the St. Louis meeting of the Interim Committee on Autism Spectrum Disorders. At the same hearing a mother gave desperate testimony on how her autistic child was having many problems in his local school district and she could not afford to send her child to a specialized private school. “I am drowning here” was the phrase that she repeated over and over. Why should her head continue to be held under water by outdated school district lines? Why should these district lines trap her son in the boundaries of receiving an ineffective education instead of receiving a possible lifeline of intervention leading to a productive, healthy life?

A study in Minnesota, one of 25 states that have open enrollment, shows that “the families of special-needs students are increasingly using the open-enrollment option and are satisfied with their choices.” This same option could be a reality for the families of 133,000+ IEP students in the state of Missouri, should the state choose to allow this policy. These families are not concerned with outdated school boundaries, only with seeing that their child has the best possible education options, and thus the best chance for leading a productive life.

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