After heated back-and-forth between lawmakers and Missouri public education spokespeople, the senate Government Reform committee passed a bill that would change how virtual school programs are funded.

The proposal would also create a penalty for school districts that fail to notify parents about their rights to participate in such programs.

One controversial part of Senate Bill 996, which was sponsored by Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, was the change that will shift per-pupil funding for students enrolled in virtual school programs away from school districts. Currently, students enrolled in virtual programs are still considered enrolled in the public school district where the student resides for the purposes of distributing per-pupil state funding.

This bill would change that. Instead of the school district receiving state funding for the student, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will be required to pay any virtual school program 100% of its average per-pupil expenditure for each full-time student, according to the bill.

The bill would also implement a penalty for school districts and charters that violate the law by failing to appropriately notify parents of their student’s right to participate in a virtual school program and make the virtual education provider responsible for tracking student attendance, in an effort to increase accountability.

Onder pointed to school districts’ failure to publicize the availability of the virtual program on their websites, saying currently only 10% of Missouri’s districts and charters are compliant with that portion of the law. The penalty would make districts subject to civil penalties of up to $100 for each day the district fails to comply with the law.

Five people spoke in support of the bill and four people spoke in opposition. Both groups fielded questions from lawmakers, but those in opposition to the bill faced much tougher lines of questioning.

Opponents took issue with diverting taxpayer dollars to virtual education providers who are not vetted by the state while there is lack of sufficient funding for public schools — specifically for transportation. They also severely criticized for-profit online providers’ lack of accountability to state education standards.

Susan Goldammer, an attorney for the Missouri School Boards’ Association, spoke on behalf of the association in opposition to the bill.

“This bill is creating virtual charter schools with even less accountability than existing charter schools,” Goldammer said.

She pointed out that although virtual providers are not held accountable to taxpayers, they will receive taxpayer funds under this bill.

“Are we completely privatizing public education to for-profit companies that are focused on the bottom line and not on the quality of education — and if we are, who is making sure these providers are doing right by our students?” Goldammer asked, along with a number of other questions intended to highlight her concerns with the bill.

She faced numerous questions from lawmakers, particularly from Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia. Among other questions, Rowden asked if Goldammer believes parents aren’t experts in educating their children and who she thought should be allowed to make the decision. He also brought up the recent example of the Kansas City public school district falsifying student attendance data.

“What kind of accountability exists there?” Rowden asked. “Can that school close?”
Goldammer explained that no, the school could not close but that she believes the fact that the district lost its full accreditation is consequence enough. She then suggested discussing the four audits of charter schools that have received a “poor” rating, the lowest rating in the state. Rowden was not satisfied.

Kelvin Carter, a career readiness administrator for the Missouri Virtual Academy, spoke in support of the bill. He assured lawmakers that MOVA provides full-time schooling and explained the student-teacher ratio is about 25 to one. He emphasized that virtual providers are held accountable and accept all interested students.

“We’ve not turned away one student,” Carter said. “The only students that are not in the program are the ones that can’t get a district to sign off or can’t get in touch with the person at the district. … It’s become very, very cumbersome.”

Carter said of 3,587 students who attempted to gain access to the virtual education program, only 302 students enrolled. He attributed the difference to the requirement of a district sign-off.

Independence School District Superintendent Dale Herl spoke in opposition to the bill. He said he believes parents should be able to choose online schooling for their students but not when it is funded by taxpayers.

“This is about the wish of some to privatize education and in making a profit on the education of Missouri students,” Herl said.