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“There are some people that are clearly telling us they are not going to follow the law.”
That was one message Missouri Commissioner of Education Dr. Margie Vandeven had for the State Board of Education this week as the body heard an update on how school districts were implementing the Missouri Virtual Education and Course Access Program (MOCAP).
Dr. Vandeven said that while some districts were telling the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) that they were bending over backward to help families access the virtual education options provided through the MOCAP program, there was little the state education department could do to force districts to give families their legal rights to virtual education when districts refused to follow the law.
Board President Charlie Sheilds agreed with her, noting that the way the law was structured meant many school districts had a conflict of interest when it came to approving a student’s request to enroll in a virtual education program.
“When you’re asking the LEA to be the gatekeeper for the student and be the payer you’re asking them in many cases to do something that they don’t believe in,” he said. “That creates a disconnect. I think it’s no secret that there’s a lot of superintendents that don’t believe in virtual education, they don’t believe that for-profits have a role to play in this and then when you put them in the position of being the gatekeeper and being the payer, then you’re gonna have a problem.”
Many families have had problems over the past year resulting in multiple lawsuits against districts, all of which have been settled or decided in favor of the parent’s rights to the MOCAP program.
The issue is particularly important this fall as families across the state are struggling to find the best and safest option for their children to learn during a pandemic.
While many school districts are offering some form of district-based virtual education, most are not properly informing families of their rights to 10 well-established national providers through the MOCAP program.
Those families that have found out about their rights through MOCAP have then been faced with delayed approvals for their request to enroll in MOCAP programs, misinformation from school districts, or, in many cases, have simply been ignored when they have asked to access their legal right to MOCAP programs.
One MOCAP provider, MOVA, has publicly stated that they have 1,600 potential students who are waiting on approval decisions from districts across the state.
State officials refused to state that number at this week’s State Board of Education meeting, referring to the number of families having difficulties accessing MOCAP only as “big” and a “large number.”
“We are hearing numbers, but we have no way of tracking that,” said Dr. Vandeven, noting that DESE was only aware of problems when families appealed a denial from a district. She said the state had no way to track when districts were holding up or ignoring requests to enroll in MOCAP programs. “We just don’t know.”
Assistant Commissioner Dr. Chris Neale said DESE was frequently trying to inform districts of what the law required including the need to feature the MOCAP program on district websites, giving families the freedom to choose from any MOCAP provider (not just one the district chooses to work with), and the need for speedy approvals or denials for requests to participate in MOCAP.
“We want to be very clear that a request can include a specific provider,” he said. “There is nothing in this law that indicates that a school district or charter school can narrow the approved MOCAP courses. Once you’re in the catalog, you’re considered to be approved and people can request participation.”
But DESE, nor the state board, have any real authority to make sure schools are following the law.
“We don’t have a lot of options, and that is the hard part,” said Commissioner Vandeven. “We don’t really have much we can do to go after a district.”
“The statute says they are supposed to put on their websites how to do this, well districts are not doing that,” said Shields. “But the statute does not allow us to pull a district’s accreditation because they’ve failed to put it on their website. If legislator want a penalty for that, you need to put a penalty in the law.”