Barnes’ bill would fund online education at expense of schools

Missouri students would have much better access to an online education, if a bill proposed by Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, is approved by the General Assembly. Under the terms of the bill, funding that goes to Missouri’s public school districts would become portable to the virtual school of a family’s choice.

Barnes’ bill — which allows a student to enroll in the online program of a charter school or a district other than the student’s home district — was heard in the House Education Committee Wednesday.

The bill is intended to benefit a variety of students — such as ones who are gifted or struggling, or those who may suffer serious health issues or have a disability — whose needs aren’t being met by a traditional bricks-and-mortar environment, Barnes suggested. He added that home-schooled children might also benefit from his legislation.

His proposal calls for students to be included in the average daily attendance of their home school district, which must pay the receiving school 72.5 percent of the previous year’s average current expenditure per average daily attendance, not to exceed the total amount due the district under the state’s foundation formula. Currently, the fiscal year 2012 per-pupil expenditure is $9,487; that expenditure, multiplied by .725, would yield a payment of $6,878 per pupil.

As of Wednesday’s hearing, the fiscal was unknown. If even 15 Missouri students availed themselves of Barnes’ legislation, the cost would exceed $100,000 and grow proportionally thereafter.

Rep. Genise Montecillo, D-St. Louis County, was concerned about socialization. “For some students, their whole educational career could be in virtual schools,” she said.

Barnes said socialization might be a concern, but one that is “better left up to parents” to address.

“I would agree,” she replied, “Except this is something the state is financing.”

Currently school districts in the state do offer online educational programs; however, they only are available to the students who reside within the district.

“What your bill does is create economies of scale we’re not able to have today,” said Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield.

Burlison was interested in Barnes’ idea, but didn’t want to see private enterprises leveraging Missouri’s regulatory climate at the expense of student learning. “I think the solution is to let the market work,” he said.

Barnes said the selected the 72.5 percent figure because it will provide an adequate amount of funding. “We don’t want a shabby, shoestring product,” he said.

Opponents to the bills raised concerns the bill would transfer money out of the state’s foundation formula — already underfunded by $686 million — to private organizations.

“We’re getting awfully close to a voucher program, so be careful,” cautioned Rep. Mike Thomson, R-Maryville.

Mike Brown, superintendent from the Grandview School District, said his students are interested in online opportunities. “They want the freedom to study what they want, when they want it,” he said.

Many of the educator groups — the Missouri State Teachers’ Association (MSTA), the Missouri National Education Association (MNEA) and the Missouri Association of School Administrators (MASA) — opposed the bill.

Mike Wood, a lobbyist for MSTA, said his organization’s main concern was open enrollment, or the possibility the bill would further widen the door to allowing students to pick the schools they want to attend. He said: “You could have patrons who decide they want to go to virtual school full time. Your district would have no input, other than paying the bill, for that virtual education.”

Mike Lodewegen, MASA lobbyist, said virtual education is available through Missouri’s Virtual Instruction Program, although that program has largely been gutted by lawmakers for budgetary reasons.

Lodewegen also said public schools are feeling squeezed by state revenue shortfalls. “Any more erosion in state funding would be extremely painful,” Lodewegen said.

Both sides squabbled over the truthful reporting of test scores. Opponents pointed out at least one virtual school program has been sued for lying about student test scores; proponents said similar complaints have been raised about public school testing.

Bert Kimble, Jefferson City Public Schools former superintendent who now lobbies on behalf of Kansas City-area schools, said Barnes’ bill does not address who, from the virtual school programs, will report accurate attendance figures back to the students’ home districts. Kimble worried virtual schools might accept the state’s money, but fail to provide a quality education. “It will set up a gold mine for charter schools,” he said.

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