Matt Pearl

It is my opinion that, against my personal preferences, our Missouri Legislature will (at some point, be it soon or a decade from now) approve open enrollment for our public schools.

I do not oppose it for ideological reasons: I like it when people have choices when it comes to goods and services. I oppose open enrollment for reasons more akin to community preservation. Schools are the heart of our small towns, and the notion of watching mass migrations to or from any of our local schools (each can be harmful in its own way) bothers me.

There’s a push – years ago, the open enrollment/school vouchers push was coming from St. Louis, where the public school system is facing tremendous challenges that we are not seeing here in the rural northwest of the state. That push is toward privatized education and school choice, a move that would presumably give students attending institutions where the educational quality is poor the chance to move on to greener pastures.

I cannot speak for the people of Kansas City and St. Louis. I’m a lifetime small-towner, and I see Missouri from the rural perspective, and to pretend that my voice could represent the cities would be less-than-genuine of me. But when I think about how open enrollment could end up changing northwest Missouri, I strongly feel such a transition ought to be avoided.

Now, I have talked with folks who are not s greatly opposed to open enrollment who think that, after a first wave of students switching to this school or that, things would calm down and schools would essentially go forward as usual. But it’s that ‘first wave’ that actually worries me.

What if enough patrons of a school develop a negative perception of their district? For many of our county schools, a migration of a handful of families could mean a drastic change in the district’s culture.

And what about sports? You and I both know that athletics can (and do) hold a higher priority with some folks than academics. What about the folks who switch schools to play on a better basketball team, or uproot their educational interests and change schools because they don’t like a coach, or think their child’s athletic talents are being underutilized by their home district?

Whether you love your local school or not, your district is a collection of people, a community all its own, that reflects the interests, talents (and weaknesses), diversity and priorities of its particular collection of people. Those colors that the ball teams wear become engrained in your community’s identity, to the extent that you paint the mascots on to your water towers and have closets filled with clothes advertising the home team.

Does any of that matter? To me it does. Would I feel differently if my school had grown unable to educate my children ably and competitively? Yes, of course. But is opening enrollment as the solution, a measure that removes the restraints tethering students to school districts, really a good one?

Wouldn’t it be more productive on our part to fortify our schools, to take the necessary steps to make them the types of institutions that no one should want to leave?

City schools suffer when facilities become worn, when classes become overcrowded, when socioeconomic differences start playing themselves out when this school is thriving, but that school is suffering. St. Louis, perhaps, has its own difficult decisions to make.

But open enrollment is the last thing rural Missouri needs. Rather than taking steps that incentivize people to give up on their local schools, it seems clearly preferable to me to encourage folks to double down on their community districts.

How can we solve problems if, rather than facing them head-on, we choose instead to flee from them? Your hometown needs you, and life is good when people take responsibility and ownership for their local institutions. Open enrollment is the wrong choice in our area.

Matt Pearl owns and operates newspapers in King City, Albany and Grant City.