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Senators debate expanding virtual school programs

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Majority Floor Leader Caleb Rowden has proposed expanding Missouri’s virtual and online school programs. 

SB 648 would open up the Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program (MOCAP) to more students by no longer requiring them to seek approval from their school district or charter school. Those entities could detail in writing why the program would not be in the student’s best educational interests, but the final decision-making would be left up to parents and guardians. 

MOCAP provides students with a catalog of asynchronous online courses and allows for-profit programs to distribute them.

Rowden’s bill also stipulates that if a school district fails to pay the virtual program provider within 60 days of receiving an invoice, the program may notify the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). DESE would pay the virtual program and withhold the amount from the district’s funding. 

The bill would also prohibit districts from negotiating lower costs with the program. 

Currently, school districts pay programs monthly based on the student’s completion of assignments and assessments.

Supporters of the bill believe it will make it easier for students who have struggled in a traditional school setting to have an alternative learning option. 

During a hearing in the Senate Education Committee Tuesday afternoon, several witnesses said public schools intentionally made transitioning their children to virtual programs more difficult. 

“I believe this will be one of the preeminent parental rights bills that we can pass this year,” Rowden, a Republican from Boone County, said.

But several public school officials spoke in opposition, arguing the bill allows for a district to pay for a student to attend a for-profit virtual learning organization without any role in monitoring student success. 

“If someone wishes to send their child to an online school, a private, or a parochial school, I wish them well and support the parents,” Independence School District superintendent Dr. Dale Herl said. “But I don’t believe it is the taxpayer’s responsibility to fund it.”

Republicans on the committee balked at statements against virtual schools, saying parents should have easier access to virtual programs due to poor performances in some public schools.

“One of the concerns I have about kids coming out of education of any kind is the high degree of young people who think socialism is a good idea,” Committee Chairwoman Cindy O’Laughlin said. 

The committee did not take any further action on the bill Tuesday.