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With more options for virtual schools, who will make sure they meet state standards?

Remko van Dokkum | Flickr

Proponents of a fix to Missouri's student transfer process scored a victory last week when they passed a bill that addresses the problem. Among the options parents would have to educate their children are expanded opportunities to enroll their children in full-time virtual schools. But the new potential new choices are raising questions about who will make sure that virtual schools are up to snuff.

State law already requires that virtual schools — which do not have brick and mortar buildings and offer classwork online —  have to meet a list of qualifications that includes having Missouri-certified teachers and offering courses that align with state curriculum standards. But the bill’s sponsor, Rep. David Wood, R-Versailles, said the legislation doesn’t make clear whose job it is to ensure virtual schools are following the rules.      

“What we’ve opened up by making it parent choice is probably a wide spectrum of vendors that could be available. We haven’t said in the bill if it’s going to be up to the school district to verify (a virtual school’s) qualifications or the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), which may be a question that we’re going to have to answer further on down the road,” Wood said.   

In other words, there are a lot of details to the expanded use of virtual schools that have yet to be nailed down.

Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, supports the overall bill and isn't too concerned. She said DESE has the flexibility to tweak policy should problems arise.

“I would say that rule-making would certainly be under the authority of the state board of education,” Chappelle-Nadal said. “They have definitely made rules in the past, and I’m pretty sure that they can make rules in this regard right now.”   

In an email, a DESE spokesperson said officials are reviewing the bill and the department is not providing any reaction. But Commissioner of Education, Margie Vandeven, was quoted by the St. Louis Post Dispatch as saying "limited virtual school accountability" is a concern.     

Democratic Mo. Gov. Jay Nixon has said that he plans to give the bill, HB 42, a thorough review before deciding whether or not he’ll sign it into law.        

Credit Mo. House of Representatives
Rep. David Wood, R-Versailles.

Historical precedence

Virtual education is nothing new to Missouri.  In 2007, the state launched the Missouri Virtual Instruction Program (MoVIP). Students living in a district that scored in the unaccredited or provisionally accredited range for two consecutive years could enroll in online classes through MoVIP. In its first year, lawmakers gave MoVIP $5.2 million in funding to provide tuition-free online learning in 150 core, elective and Advanced Placement courses. But during the 2009-10 school year, MoVIP’s funding was slashed. It's set to receive about $390,000 during the upcoming fiscal year.  

Rep. Wood said MoVIP, which is overseen by DESE, often contracts with private companies and verifies they are meeting state standards before offering virtual education. But, he said, should HB 42 become law, he could see a scenario in which a company “pops up somewhere, throws up a website and says, ‘Yes, I’m accredited.’”

“The parents are not going to be completely educated about what choices are available,” Wood said. “I would expect that the district sends a list out that they have already approved and vetted for them to choose from.” 

Districts would have a clear interest in making sure that parents would choose a quality option. Wood said under the bill, districts would be held responsible for the test scores of students enrolled in a virtual school. And even if administrators provide a list of viable options, he said they can’t keep a parent from picking any virtual school they want.

Larger Concerns     

The current bill would extend full-time virtual school options to students who spent the previous semester going to a public school in the city of St. Louis, St. Louis County and most of Jackson County, regardless of whether or not a school is meeting state standards. Because the accreditation process would shift from the district to the building level, students who went to unaccredited schools across the state could also enroll in a full time virtual school.     

"The bill just generally provides for this expansion without sufficient detail, without sufficient accountability for these providers." — Brent Ghan, spokesperson for the Missouri School Boards' Association (MSBA)

“The bill just generally provides for this expansion without sufficient detail, without sufficient accountability for these providers,” said Brent Ghan, spokesperson for the Missouri School Boards’ Association (MSBA). “We’ve had some calls already from districts in St. Louis County wondering how this would work if this becomes effective. And it’s really pretty unclear how this would unfold.”  

The MSBA and other education groups have included virtual school expansion on the list of reasons they’re urging Nixon to veto HB 42. Ghan added that there are also concerns about the prospect of state dollars flowing to private virtual school companies.  Under the bill, districts would pay tuition to vendors at a rate that could not exceed the state adequacy target, which is currently $6,131 per student.   

But Wood said worries about virtual school expansion — as with the rest of HB 42 — have been overblown. Enrollment in online schools would probably be minimal at best, he said. That's a point that was echoed by Rep. Chappelle-Nadal. Wood added that clearing the way for more virtual schools — which could be run by everything from school districts to publicly traded corporations — could be especially beneficial for students attending an unaccredited school in rural Missouri or who don't feel safe in class.    

“We’ve had students who’ve had issues with bullying at school. When they get [those students] into the home to get an education, they tend to do better without having the social stresses around them,” Wood said. “But it takes a special student to actually succeed in a virtual school. They have to be self-motivated.”

Meanwhile, the range of virtual school options continues to expand in states across the country. A report by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) noted that it’s one of the fastest growing parts of K-12 education in America. Yet there continue to be concerns about the quality of education students in virtual schools actually receive. For schools where state academic ratings are available, NEPC researchers found that almost 72 percent of virtual schools were considered “academically unacceptable.”  

Michael Barbour is an education professor at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut who worked on the NEPC study. He said the odds of academic success in online learning largely depend on the motivation level of an individual student. Students who aren’t already high achieving or have parents who will push them can run into problems, Barbour said.        

“Unless you’ve gone into a program that was specifically designed for you and other learners who are similar to you, you will not have success in the online environment,” Barbour said. 

Should HB 42 become law, then beginning in kindergarten parents could sign a child up for a full-time virtual school. 

“I don’t know that I could put my child in first or second grade in a virtual school when they don’t have much of an ability to type, much less spell,” Wood said. 

At the same time, Wood said, any change in education policy can lead to unforeseen problems. 

“Do I think they concern me enough to close the door and not leave it open as an option? Hopefully parents will be responsible enough for their kindergarten and first grades to know if this going to be good for them or not good for them,” Wood said.       

Tim Lloyd was a founding host of We Live Here from 2015 to 2018 and was the Senior Producer of On Demand and Content Partnerships until Spring of 2020.

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