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Reimagining Education

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Don’t mistake lobbyist opinion for fact

In 2019, Joshua Schindler, a St. Louis attorney, represented a Fulton family in a lawsuit against Fulton Public Schools, proving that FPS and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education improperly denied the family’s request to access to virtual education. He recently responded to a one-sided article in the Fulton Sun that was filled with misinformation about Missouri’s virtual education program — MOCAP. Unfortunately, the paper has a strict limit of 400 words for reader responses, and Schindler was forced to dramatically reduce his full response to the article. We felt he made some very important points about not just what happened in Fulton but the need for greater parent control over virtual education across Missouri, so we are sharing his response in full below.

The Fulton Sun’s recent headline (“Fulton school board learns about virtual education”) seemed off to me, as the board only heard a one-sided presentation by a lobbyist pushing to eliminate that very virtual education program (“MOCAP”). As such, my suggested title would have been: “School board lobbied by school board lobbyist.” 

In the interest of providing the Fulton school board (and by extension you, the Sun’s readers) some much-needed context, please consider the following questions and whether you deserve better answers to any of them than what has been provided to you and your children.  

Q: First, what exactly are the virtual school rights guaranteed to Missouri students by state law.

Q: What is the Missouri School Board Association (“MSBA”), and who is Ms. Susan Goldammer?

Q: What purpose was served by having a school board lobbyist tell a school board why she was/is lobbying for school boards to have legislators repeal MOCAP and limit online education in general?

Q: Were any MOCAP schools (providers or participants) asked to help the school board learn about virtual education? Were any MOCAP students/families asked to help educate the board?

Of course, the only question that truly matters (if someone is actually trying to learn about virtual programs generally or MOCAP specifically), is this:

Q: What information is needed to determine whether enrolling in a particular online program is in the best educational interest of a particular student, and who should be trusted to make the final decision based on this information?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers to all of these questions, but I’ll tell you what I know, or at least give you my opinion on these matters.

First, the MOCAP statute provides a legal right to virtual education (individual classes and even full-time virtual education), to every student in Missouri, so long as they were previously enrolled in any public school (anywhere).  The fact that a school offers its own “homemade” virtual school is irrelevant, as the only way a student can be denied enrollment in their MOCAP class or full-time program of choice, is by the school declaring in writing (and based on an individual assessment), that the MOCAP class or program is not in the student’s “best educational interest.” However, even if denied, students may appeal the decision to the school board, and then, if necessary, to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Next, the MSBA is a special interest group, and Ms. Goldammer is Associate Executive Director, Employment and Labor Relations, i.e. a lobbyist and lawyer. (Full transparency, I too am a lawyer). More specifically, MSBA is a vocal opponent of virtual education, and MOCAP specifically. Earlier this year, they sent Ms. Goldammer to lobby legislators in Jefferson City, i.e. to convince them that they should dismantle and/or disable MOCAP, to deprive Missouri students of their current right to virtual education. (Full transparency, I too am an advocate, just on the other side, i.e. for students throughout Missouri who asked to enroll in MOCAP, were denied, and decided to appeal). 

Having failed to convince these legislators, MSBA has apparently decided to try a grass roots approach. An opinion can be made to look like news, or fact, pretty easily. The opinion is given to an elected official, thus creating “news” that a briefing took place. Generally, an “expert” is used, but in a pinch anyone with a title will do. That story is then relied upon by another official (or a reader) to support their common/shared position, which position can then be used or reported as confirmation of the first. And on and on it grows. You might think these tactics exist only in Washington D.C., but ask yourself, what facts were presented other than what was said to someone you elected? 

More specifically, Ms. Goldammer told your school board that a virtual education is not as good as one obtained from a brick and mortar school. You, the reader, are asked to assume all virtual schools are the same, because Ms. Goldammer stated that a university/professor studying virtual education some six odd years ago agreed with her. But what did they study? What was the hypothesis, the control group, the experiment, or the observations vs. actual conclusion? Based on these facts, are those conclusions even applicable to Missouri students and MOCAP providers? I won’t be called anti-science for asking questions about parameters and methods which are put to every 7th grade science fair participant. More specifically, were online programs offering as many Zoom/live classes six years ago, and how many students back then went to virtual education because they were already failing or having problems with their brick and mortar schools? I’ve exhausted my expertise at this point, but I think you get the point. That study does not prove that virtual education isn’t the best option for your student. Period.  If you’re up for a read, the 100+ page study can’t be summarized by either side in a sentence or two, but can be found at:

https://credo.stanford.edu/sites/g/files/sbiybj6481/f/online_charter_study_final.pdf.

Ms. Goldammer then implied that hidden interest groups are intentionally making virtual education hard for parents and schools to understand or review, in order to hide her previously proclaimed “fact” as to its quality and/or harm to the community. In essence, she suggested that ignorant Missouri families would know better than to want virtual education for their children or communities if only her greedy opponents would stop lying to them and finally just agree with her lobbying group’s position that virtual education harms Missouri schools and students. Alternatively, if only these online providers would stop hiding what they are teaching from the schools, the schools would finally be able to prove to its students how bad virtual education is for them. It’s all so very convenient, neat and tidy.

The truth is that all MOCAP providers are approved by DESE, use Missouri certified teachers, and must follow Missouri learning standards. In reality, it is the school districts that don’t want families to even know that MOCAP exists, or failing that to have access to more than self-serving opinions, whether through more common practices like burying any reference to MOCAP at the bottom of webpages under boilerplate terms, simply stalling the appeal process long enough to make a student miss an entire semester of school, or by more egregious means like having a lobbyist give them an opinion so as to publicize same without any rebuttal, right before families are to make decisions whether to request MOCAP for Spring semester.

More specifically, were you aware that the Fulton school district was sued last year, for refusing to let a family enroll with a specific MOCAP provider, or that the district lost that suit?  Having lost that fight, the district website now just strongly “encourages” parents to enroll in a preferred MOCAP provider, despite Fulton Public Schools superintendent Ty Crain admitting that that provider has had numerous difficulties providing effective education this year. So, why is the district promoting that provider, or any specific provider, rather than giving families as much information as is available so that they can make an educated decision for their children?

Cost. If your lobbyist can’t get rid of student rights, and you can’t provide a product that your students actually want, you can only protect your monopoly on public education in so many ways. You can throw some dirt, or drive up your competitor’s costs. Here, we see both (demanding MOCAP tuition be lowered because MOCAP providers are basically stealing food from your students’ mouths). More specifically, Ms. Goldammer claimed that MOCAP programs are overpriced because their tuition is based on an amount determined by legislators to be the “minimum” amount necessary to adequately educate an average Missouri student at a brick and mortar school.  What, you may ask, does this have to do with whether a particular virtual class or program is in a particular student’s best interest? Nothing.

In fact, many if not most MOCAP providers provide their students with laptops, in addition to the books and all other materials needed for students to learn successfully at home. They provide counselors and other support services found in brick and mortar schools.  While true that MOCAP providers do not pay fixed costs for food prep or transportation, it is similarly true that Fulton spends an average of $9,693 on each of your students, every year. A MOCAP student enrollment only costs the school $6,375. In other words, for every MOCAP student enrolled at Fulton, Fulton receives $3,318 in funds that won’t be used to cook a single meal for the MOCAP student or cover extra gas for the bus that would pick them up. This MOCAP windfall can be used to improve services to all remaining students. 

The people you elected had a clear eye to the future and enacted a statute providing full access to online education. They, like all Missouri parents, know that Missouri education must evolve for our children to compete not just with kids in their hometown, but with a global workforce.  MOCAP gives Missouri families, who believe their brick or mortar school is failing them, an alternative to an unacceptable status quo.  

The ultimate question each parent with school-age children should ask is what type of education provides the best opportunities for my kids.    Parents have the ability to figure out what works for their own children.  And, that is what scares the lobbyists and the teachers union.   If online education is as flawed as Ms. Goldammer suggests, then she should implore every Missouri score child to try an online program and within days, those same kids will quickly return to the comfort of a brick and mortar school.   But, she knows, as the teacher union knows, that once the veil is lifted, parents will see for themselves that there are great Missouri certified teachers online ready, willing, and excited to educate our school children, and they will never return to a brick and mortar school.   And, those that stay in their public school district, will demand more from their school because they will see how their peers taking online courses are thriving.   This will force schools like Fulton to improve to keep pace, lest it loses more students to online education.   I have not visited a Fulton School, and I am not here to suggest that there aren’t compassionate, caring, and top-quality teachers who love and care about their students only to be compensated by a less than reasonable paycheck.   But, there is plenty of deadwood in every district — teachers who are just showing up for a paycheck — who just want to shuffle kids through their classes.  Online educational opportunities give Missouri students the ability to avoid the “bad teachers” we all know about.   And, for those students who do not want to attend a brick or mortar school due to a myriad of reasons, they now have meaningful options.  

As a parent, and a strong advocate in favor of online education opportunities (for which I get paid), I urge you not to take my word for it but rather do your own research and learn about the opportunities that exist for your child’s education.  You should be an informed advocate making the best choices for your family. If your public school district is working for your family, then that is where you belong.  But, to ignore a chance to help your child succeed in life just because a lobbyist tricked a reporter into writing a one-sided article, would be a shame. 

Joshua Schindler

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