JEFFERSON CITY, MO. — If a student in Missouri wants to attend virtual school, it has to be approved by the local school district, not the parent.

A big education reform package approved by the Missouri Senate will allow parents to decide if they want to move their students online for school. It also helps the funding dispute between charter and traditional public schools, treating them more like equals.

“It’s a good compromise that delivers tangible results for the state of Missouri and the education in the state,” Senate Minority Leadership John Rizzo, D-Independence, said. “I can’t say enough positive things about how hard everyone really did work on this around the clock to try and get something done that was beneficial to both sides.”

According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), there are roughly 20 charters in Kansas City and 17 in St. Louis. In the Kansas City area, as of 2021, there are 15,295 students enrolled in public schools and 15,209 in charter schools. On the opposite side of the state, there are 19,662 students enrolled in public schools and 12,338 students in charter schools.

Charter schools are independent public schools that don’t have to follow state regulations. Earlier this year, the House passed a bill to take funding for public schools and give it to charters.

“In the past, the big issue was funding,” Rizzo said. “They wanted to take a slice of funding from Kansas City and St. Louis, now instead of making their slice smaller we made the whole pie bigger.”

According to the fiscal note in the bill approved by the House, around $8.2 million dollars would be transferred from Kansas City Public Schools to the Kansas City area charter schools. In St. Louis, roughly $18 million would be sent to area charter schools from St. Louis City Public Schools.

“We basically decided to take the difference, the calculation of the difference, between funding in Kansas City and St. Louis between traditional publics and charters and basically roll that into the foundation formula, so now the state will take on that part of the responsibility,” said Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden (R-Columbia).

There are also some accountability measures in the bill for charter schools, requiring them to post their test scores online. Board members also must live in the state of Missouri and the companies operating the charter school must be a nonprofit.

“We wanted accountability and transparency and we were able to get a lot of those things done in this bill,” Rizzo said. “This is a huge win for people who have been opponents of charter schools for a very long time.”

Another piece of the legislation would prevent school districts from being the gatekeepers for virtual schools. Back in 2018, the General Assembly expanded access to online learning for kindergarten through 12th grade. The program is called the “Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program” or MOCAP. It allows parents to enroll their children in virtual learning courses, as long as the district approves and then pays for it.

“Everyone is going to have input in the process,” Rowden said. “The parent gets to make the final decision as to whether or not they think that the virtual option is the right option. The virtual provider has the ability to say, we don’t think we are the right option for any number of reasons.

Rowden said one of the concerns about the program is if a student leaves their online courses and goes back to the local school district and then that school is on the hook if there is a learning loss. He says there have been accountability measures put into place to address that.

“There were about 6,000 kids that applied and only about 600 have been granted access into the virtual program because they were those local districts to make the final decision,” Rowden said.

There are nearly a dozen virtual school providers in the state under MOCAP. Back in 2020, the state Board of Education put a timeframe in place for school districts, requiring administrators to respond to parents within 30 days of the request to enroll their students into MOCAP.

“The language that we ended up with for virtual schools is probably enough to relieve some headaches, but I don’t think it will be with all of them,” Rowden said.

The bill needs one final vote from the Senate, which Rowden said could come as early as Monday.