- Associated Press - Monday, February 16, 2015

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri senators are to consider a measure this week that could expand access to online education for children living near struggling school districts - a proposal that has drawn concerns about accountability for such programs and the potential to strain public schools’ finances.

The virtual school provision is part of a larger bill aimed at fixing the state’s student transfer law, which legislative leaders have said is a top priority this session after efforts failed last year.

Currently, unaccredited school districts must pay tuition for students who decide to attend a better-performing school, a requirement that drove the Normandy school district near St. Louis to near insolvency.

A Senate panel on last week added a virtual schools option to a broader bill meant to address the costs unaccredited schools face when students transfer, along with providing students more choices.

“The primary purpose is to give options to the kids in the failing schools,” said Sen. Bob Onder, a Lake St. Louis Republican who offered the amendment.



Supporters say online schooling helps students who might struggle in traditional classrooms, such as those on the autism spectrum, children with long-term illnesses, those who are bullied or children in military families who move regularly.

Efforts to address issues with Missouri’s transfer law stalled last year, when Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed a bill that would have allowed students to transfer to private schools at the cost of their home district.

The governor said transfers to virtual schools - which began in Missouri in 2007 - could be a “very useful option,” but cautioned that accountability measures need to be in place. No one has offered specifics on what those would be.

“We’re not ruling out options,” Nixon said. “I’d want to see the language of it, because you want to make sure you maintain high quality.”

In the latest version of the bill, students in any unaccredited district or surrounding accredited districts could attend virtual schools at the cost of their home school system. Onder said increasing the number of students eligible for free tuition at virtual schools beyond just unaccredited districts could help keep those programs financially viable and said “that’s probably not going be an issue” for public schools.

But Brent Ghan, spokesman for the Missouri School Boards’ Association, said a “drastic” expansion of virtual schools also could drain students and resources from traditional public schools.

“This could have very significant and abrupt financial impact on school districts,” Ghan said. If enough students opt for online schooling, that “could put a real stress on budgets of local school districts.”

Sen. David Pearce, who sponsored the Senate bill and opposed adding the virtual school amendment, noted that those programs were “found to be successful but difficult to sustain and costly.”

State funding for Missouri’s virtual instruction program, or MoVIP, has decreased significantly since its inception in 2007, when it received about $5.2 million. Last fiscal year, the program received about $378,085, effectively limiting free tuition only to students with medical needs.

“Can we really afford that?” asked Pearce, a Warrensburg Republican.

About 400 students signed up for MoVIP since Aug. 1, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokesman Brent Foster said. He said most families chose to pay tuition out-of-pocket.

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said he expects the measure to be debated this week by the Senate. A House committee also is considering a separate plan to expand virtual schools.

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Transfer bill is SB 1.

Online:

Senate: https://www.senate.mo.gov

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Follow Summer Ballentine at https://twitter.com/esballentine

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