Missouri Senate to Vote on Charter School Funding, Virtual School Enrollment Changes

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

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

“It’s a good compromise that delivers tangible results for the state of Missouri and education in the state,” said Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence. “I can’t say enough positive things about how everyone really worked on it around the clock to try and do something that was beneficial for both parties.”

According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), there are approximately 20 charters in Kansas City and 17 in St. Louis. In the Kansas City area, in 2021, there were 15,295 students enrolled in public schools and 15,209 in charter schools. Across 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 do not have to follow state regulations. Earlier this year, the House passed a bill to take funding from 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 cutting their slice, we’ve made the pie bigger.”

According to the House-approved bill’s tax memo, about $8.2 million would be transferred from Kansas City public schools to charter schools in the Kansas City area. In St. Louis, about $18 million would be sent to area charter schools from public schools in the city of St. Louis.

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

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

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

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

“Everyone is going to have a say in the process,” Rowden said. “The parent makes the final decision as to whether or not they think 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 a number of reasons.

Rowden said one of the concerns with the program is if a student leaves their online classes and returns to the local school district, then that school is responsible for any learning loss. He says accountability measures have been put in place to address this issue.

“There were about 6,000 kids who applied and only about 600 were allowed 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. In 2020, the State Board of Education implemented a timeline for school districts, requiring administrators to respond to parents within 30 days of their students’ application for MOCAP enrollment.

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

The bill requires a final Senate vote, which Rowden said could come as early as Monday.

Perry A. Thomasson