Public schools would have to pay for private virtual schools under new Missouri plan

Missouri public school students in kindergarten through 12th grade could take online courses for free, with their school district or charter school picking up the tab, under legislation that passed the Missouri House and Senate this month.

The main intent of the plan, dubbed the Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program, is to expand course access for high school students in small, rural or cash-strapped schools that might lack the money or number of students to justify hiring staff to teach advanced courses, such as chemistry, Chinese or creative writing.

“Having this course access kind of gets rid of the education by ZIP code and opens up a wide variety of classes for all the students,” said state Rep. Bryan Spencer, R-Wentzville, a former teacher who handled the virtual school proposal in the House.

The measure is the only major piece of school choice legislation to make it out of this year’s legislative session. Bills to expand charter schools statewide and introduce education savings accounts petered out early on.

While the virtual education legislation was written with high school students in mind, Missouri law allows even kindergartners to join the virtual school program. The legislation sets no limit on how many students could enroll in virtual school, and students could also become full-time virtual students.

Traditional public school advocates say the plan would essentially create statewide virtual charter schools, which are publicly funded, online schools run by private entities. Virtual schools have been shown to have comparatively low performance. An April 2017 report by the National Education Policy Center found that only about 37 percent of full-time virtual schools in the U.S. received acceptable performance ratings. The same report said virtual schools had an average graduation rate of about 43 percent.

“One of the concerns is that this will morph into virtual charter schools, where students aren’t students of the public school at all. Students can just enroll in it directly and the online provider will collect state aid,” said Susan Goldammer, an attorney and associate executive director with the Missouri School Boards’ Association.

Meanwhile, passage of the measure is being hailed as a win for school choice advocates.

“I’m a strong advocate that the parent is the ultimate decision-maker in a child’s education,” rather than a public education establishment, Spencer said.

Spencer said he has worked on getting a virtual education bill passed for six years.

The legislation could take effect next summer, if the governor signs it into law.

Denial for ‘good cause’

Missouri already offers its own statewide virtual school, called the Missouri Virtual Instruction Program or MoVIP, which was established in 2007. But only “medically fragile” students and students who attend school in provisionally accredited or unaccredited districts can take those online classes for free, at the expense of the state in the case of medical issues or their home district in the case of accreditation issues. Any Missouri students can take a course if they pay for it.

Because MoVIP is dependent on state funding, the program’s enrollment has been limited. For the school year that just ended, just 550 students were enrolled in MoVIP, and only 34 school districts paid for one or more students to take a MoVIP course, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

This year’s legislation has flagged concerns for state leaders of traditional public schools, who fear that making online courses free will entice students to leave their schools and drain district funding.

“Part of our concern is a kid could take literally all of their education virtually, but they’re still considered a student of the district, and the student’s scores on the MAP test will be attributed to the district even though the district hasn’t hired the teachers that taught these courses,” Goldammer said.

It would be up to public schools and the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to ensure that the online classes approved for the virtual school are of high quality.

Currently, the department says it only approves online classes that align with state learning standards and are “high quality, research-based and specifically designed to increase academic achievement.” The department also requires that all virtual school teachers be certified to teach their particular subject in Missouri. Five for-profit and two nonprofit companies are currently approved by the department to provide middle and high school classes for MoVIP. Those cost anywhere from $100 to $817 for a semester course.

The new legislation would require the department to publish an annual report showing student outcome data for the virtual school program, a new requirement for the department.

Public schools would be able to deny a student’s request to enroll in an online course, but only for “good cause,” which means the school would have to decide that enrolling in an online class “is not in the best educational interest of the student.” If a request to enroll in an online class was denied, students and their parents would have the power to appeal to their local school board, then to the state education department.

Spencer acknowledged that he thinks face-to-face instruction is more effective for most students than online education, and he would not want students to take online classes in subjects that are already being taught by their school district or charter school.

But the legislation does not prohibit students from taking online classes in subjects that are already taught in local public schools. It would largely be up to school districts and charter schools to decide what constitutes a “good cause” to reject a student’s online enrollment. Spencer said he expects public schools will not give students free rein online when the school already offers a subject.

“If they can’t do what’s right, then we’ll readdress it,” Spencer said of public schools. “We are trusting them until they give us reason not to.”