Missouri K-12 students may soon get option of free online courses

ST. LOUIS — New legislation passed in Missouri means that as early as next year, public school students in kindergarten through 12th grade could have the option of taking online courses for free.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the Missouri House and Senate in May approved what’s been dubbed the Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program. If the governor signs it, the law could become effective next summer.

The main intent is to expand course access for high school students in small, rural or financially-troubled schools that may not be able to afford teachers in advanced courses such as chemistry, Chinese or creative writing.

Under the new program, the school district or charter school would pick up the tab, not the student’s family.

“Having this course access kind of gets rid of the education by ZIP code and opens up a wide variety of classes for all the students,” said state Rep. Bryan Spencer, a Wentzville Republican and former teacher who led the proposal in the House.

Students could sidestep traditional schools completely, though a report last year raised concerns about the performance of full-time virtual students. The report by the National Education Policy Center found that only about 37 percent of full-time virtual schools in the U.S. received acceptable performance ratings, and the average graduation rate was 43 percent.

Susan Goldammer, associate executive director with the Missouri School Boards’ Association, cited concern that the program “will morph into virtual charter schools, where students aren’t students of the public school at all. Students can just enroll in it directly and the online provider will collect state aid.”

Missouri already has a statewide virtual school. The Missouri Virtual Instruction Program was established in 2007. But only “medically fragile” students and students who attend school in provisionally accredited or unaccredited districts can take MoVIP classes for free.

Because MoVIP is dependent on state funding, enrollment has been limited. Just 550 students from fewer than three dozen districts were enrolled in MoVIP in the recently-concluded school year.

Schools and the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would be tasked with ensuring the quality of online classes. The state would publish an annual report showing student outcome data.

A student’s request to enroll in the online school could be denied if doing so “is not in the best educational interest of the student.” Appeals would go to the local school board, then the state.