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Onder backs lawsuit alleging school district restricted education options

Sen. Bob Onder has thrown his support behind a Fulton family suing a school district for allegedly declining to provide access to online courses. Along with the suit, Onder argued the family should have access to the online program due to a new law signed last year. 

Miya Estill filed a suit in the Cole County Circuit Court alleging the Fulton Public School District denied her children’s enrollment in online courses offered by Grandview R-2 School District called “MOVA.” A Fulton representative initially denied the enrollment request in May, stating, “We don’t use other district’s online curriculum” and noted the online courses hadn’t been approved by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) in June, according to the lawsuit. 

The lawsuit maintains DESE — also named as a defendant — does not pre-approve courses and points to a law signed in 2018 which broadly allows students to automatically enroll in program courses. The bill, championed by Onder in the General Assembly, expanded the state’s virtual instruction program to increase opportunities for eligible students to utilize online courses through his or her school as long as the provider meets certain requirements. 

It says school districts and charters must allow eligible students to enroll in virtual school program courses of his or her choice — either full-time or as part of an annual course load. If a district or charter school denies a request, it must be for “good cause,” meaning it has made a “determination that doing so is not in the best educational interest of the student,” the bill said. 

The denial and justification must be given to the student and his or her family along with information about the right to appeal to the district board or governing body. During an appeal, the family will be able to present an argument for why a child should be enrolled in the virtual program, and the district or charter school will also have an opportunity to present its “good cause” justification for denial. 

Both Onder and Estill’s lawsuit maintain the MOVA courses do meet the required standards to be eligible. 

“Fulton has no discretion to exclude MOVA or the Courses from the Minors’ statutory right to enroll in the full-time program of their choice, unless after making individual assessments as to their best interest. Fulton has refused to make sure an assessment, or issue an appealable denial in writing based thereupon,” the petition said. “Fulton has no discretion to refuse to make such an assessment, and thereafter either approve enrollment, or deny same (giving the reason therefor in writing) and inform Estill of her right to appeal such decision to the school board.” 

Onder said his bill — which was signed in June 2018 — was “intended to expand opportunities for students to learn in an environment that works best for them, even if it is outside of the traditional classroom.” 

“It is outrageous that DESE and the Fulton School District are denying children the educational opportunities that are their right under Missouri law,” the Republican senator said in a statement. “I support the Estill family as they fight for their child and for other Missouri children. It is my hope that this case helps fulfill SB 603’s purpose of allowing students access to the education they deserve.” 

He told The Missouri Times DESE is creating additional “bureaucratic hurdles” for families which was “not the intent of the bill.” He also worried DESE could end up restricting access to singular online courses as well full-time enrollment programs.  

Karen Snethen, a spokeswoman for the Fulton Public School District told the News Tribune DESE has only approved a few courses for fifth grade students — not any comprehensive elementary programs. She said students cannot be guaranteed enrollment in approved courses either. 

“Should a current approved virtual course be requested, [Fulton Public School] officials will follow Board of Education policy and review the request for the ‘best educational interest’ of the student, thereby making a determination,” she told the newspaper. 

Grandview is also named as a defendant as it did not join the plaintiff in the suit, it said. 

The case has been assigned to Judge Patricia S. Joyce of the Cole County Circuit Court. 

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