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Proposed rule threatens virtual education in Missouri

A new rule being proposed by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education could have a major impact on how Missouri families access virtual education through the Missouri Course Access and Virtual Education Program (MOCAP).

Anyone listening to the presentation of the proposed rule changes to the State Board of Education this week would be forgiven for thinking the new rule is a common-sense collection of improvements to the MOCAP law.

But as always, the devil is in the details, and in this case, those details could potentially create a rule at odds with the MOCAP law, a rule that could limit the number of providers families currently have access to through the program.

MOCAP should be open to all students living in Missouri

The first flawed detail in the new rule is the most destructive.

The proposed change states that participation in the MOCAP program first requires that students have been enrolled for a full semester in a Missouri public school.

This is a direct contradiction of the current law which simply requires the student to be “under 21 in grades K-12 and reside in the state of Missouri.”

It may seem like a small thing, but this change means that any student moving to the state would be ineligible for the MOCAP program until they have first spent a semester in a brick-and-mortar school.

This change would have a negative effect on military families who are transferred to one of the military bases in our state, whose children may be enrolled in a virtual school to provide a consistent education for their children.

It could also have a negative impact on our state’s ability to attract new industries or grow existing industries.

For example, General Motors recently closed a plant in Ohio and many of their employees are being transferred to the plant in Wentzville. Some of these employees may want to enroll their children in a virtual school program, but under the proposed rule that would not be an option.

Access to quality education for their employee’s families is one of the key criteria corporations consider when deciding where to place new plants and in a state where less than half our students are at grade level for reading and math. We need to be able to offer parents as many options as possible.

Parents who move into our state, for whatever reason, should not have to wait a full semester for their child to be eligible to enroll their child in a virtual school program.

Further removing parents from control over their child’s education

The proposed rule change also addresses how students with IEPs or 504 plans would have access to MOCAP courses, requiring the agreement of the IEP or 504 team before a student can participate in a MOCAP course.

While these changes seem well-intentioned, they can be used as a way to prevent the parent from having the ability to make the educational decision that they believe is in the best interest of their child.

The reality is that even though parents are a part of the IEP team, parent requests that are made in IEP meetings are frequently denied.

There is no reason why the parent should not have the “final” say about enrolling their child in a MOCAP virtual school program.

Death by a thousand paper cuts

The proposed rule change also implements a number of new reporting requirements, that create unfair and unnecessary burdens for virtual education providers – burdens that DESE does not currently require from education programs offered by brick-and-mortar school districts.

The rule changes would require MOCAP providers to give DESE and districts direct access to their teachers, a requirement that is not currently in place for other programs involving out-of-district education providers like colleges providing dual enrollment programs.

The MOCAP providers should not have higher expectations than traditional public schools or the colleges they partner with for dual enrollment programs.

There are also several new statements in the rule change that require an unfair and unsustainable level of reporting of student progress to districts and requirements to mirror how and what is being taught in the district.

These changes include a requirement for MOCAP providers to match their academic calendars and pacing charts (a plan for when different criteria are taught during a year) to individual districts.

At first glance, this seems to make sense, but when you realize there are over 500 districts in Missouri all of whom have different calendars and pacing charts, it quickly becomes obvious that these changes set up an incredibly difficult requirement to meet and again one that is not required of other programs like dual enrollment. Additionally, many families seek out full-time virtual education programs specifically because the timing and content of instruction in their brick-and-mortar school is not meeting their child’s educational needs, a key benefit that would be negated by this rule change.

Finally, the proposed rule changes would require each MOCAP provider to provide districts and DESE staff access to customizable reports on student progress “at any time.”

Like the other proposed changes, this makes sense at first glance but when you consider the mix of synchronous and asynchronous programs offered through MOCAP and the fact that there are over 500 districts to which providers would have to answer, it actually creates yet another nearly impossible-to-meet requirement that could result in fewer options for Missouri families.

Creating more problems than it solves

All of these issues taken together reveal a proposed rule change that actually creates more problems than it solves, while at the same time ignoring the multitude of roadblocks districts across Missouri have created over the past year to deny Missouri families their right to virtual education.

DESE staff are correct that there are issues with the MOCAP program that need to be resolved, but this proposed rule underlines the need to address those issues through legislative action, not departmental rule-making, in order to preserve the original intent of the law – giving parents and students better access to more educational options.

Given the multitude of issues that families across the state have faced accessing virtual education during the pandemic, it is clearly time for the state legislature to step in and give families direct access to all of the virtual education options available through MOCAP.

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