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The Missouri Joint Committee on Education wants students throughout the state to have better access to virtual education through the Missouri Virtual Education and Course Access Program (MOCAP).
This week the committee heard how some school districts across the state are blocking families from accessing the program.
Several news agencies are reporting that members of the committee will be asking the governor to issue an emergency waiver that would allow parents to enroll directly into a MOCAP program without getting approval from their local school district.
Attorney Josh Schindler testified before the committee on Wednesday, telling them he has spent the last year helping families across the state who have been denied their legal rights to virtual education by school districts.
“It is incredulous that some school districts would be teaching our children about right and wrong and have acknowledged to DESE (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) that they do not intend to follow the law,” he said. “DESE should report who those districts are and allow some action to be taken.”
Schindler said that giving school districts the power to decide whether or not students can enroll in a MOCAP program created a clear conflict of interest when those same school districts were also responsible for paying for tuition to a virtual program.
“That needs to end and that needs to end immediately,” he said. “I get that money matters, but lives matter more. There are parents who want a virtual education for their children to protect them and their families from COVID. There is only one word for what the school districts are doing – it’s disgusting. Someone needs to act because we’re going to have kids who are not going to go to school and risk their family’s lives or be subjected to substandard online programs all in the interest of the school district saving hundreds of dollars. This committee, DESE, and the governor owe it to the people of the state of Missouri to not pass on this issue but to actively address it with the same urgency that you would address health and safety issues.”
Schindler told the committee he had seen districts across the state try a wide variety of methods to deny families their legal right to MOCAP programs ranging from ignoring application requests to trying to force families to enroll in a different program to requiring students to access the virtual courses from within a school building and not from home.
Districts usually remove the barriers and approve requests to participate in MOCAP as soon as they are contacted by an attorney, Schindler told the committee.
“It’s as if they’ve been waiting for anyone to do anything so then now they have to approve it,” he said but noted that going through that process typically cost a family $300 to $500. “Why should a lawyer have to write a letter for someone who is simply trying to access their rights under the law?”
Schindler said another problem was that even with rule changes being considered by DESE schools would be able to legally delay students from accessing a virtual program for up to 80 days.
“How can a kid who applies on August 1 get the virtual education they want when a school can delay it for 80 days,” he said. “That absolutely has to stop.”
DESE Chief of Governmental Relations Michael Harris told the committee that there was only so much the state agency could do to ensure schools were giving students their legal right to enroll in MOCAP programs.
He said schools were required to fill out a checklist every year asserting that they were following aspects of the law, but that there was no statewide effort to make sure schools were responding truthfully.
“We don’t go into school districts and audit them,” he said. “Of the 518 districts, 500 of them said they were doing everything, 10 of them were non-responsive.”
Harris said the only penalty for not adhering to the requirements of the law or for lying on the checklist would be reducing a district’s accreditation level, but noted that had only happened in the case of school districts not having a certified superintendent and had never been considered for issues with access to virtual education.