State chamber promotes more funding for virtual learning

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry on Thursday raised concerns that Missouri’s efforts to bring online education opportunities to the state’s elementary and secondary students have fallen behind other states’.

According to the study — entitled “K-12 Digital Learning in Missouri: Creating Virtual Pathways to Success” — some Missouri students do have online and blended learning options — but only if they are able to pay or if they live in a district that offers such programs. Although the Missouri Virtual Instruction Program (MoVIP) still exists, the program saw its funding cut severely four years ago and currently serves a much smaller group of users.

Speaking at a press conference held at the Missouri State Capitol, chamber leaders said they hope the Legislature will consider proposals to expand digital — also known as “virtual” or “cyber” — learning opportunities.

Among their recommendations include: allowing schools to receive 100 percent funding for students taking online courses without requiring seat time; increasing the opportunities for rural students by offering fully funded courses through MoVIP or other state-approved providers; making online options available to students in failing school districts; increasing broadband access; and requiring all school districts to pay for students to take online classes.

Dan Mehan, Chamber of Commerce president/CEO, said online learning is the future, but added the current virtual learning programs available in Missouri are “fractured” and “well out of date.”

“I know that our staff gets online to do professional development. It’s a fact of reality in the employer-world today that you go online to improve yourself,” he said. “Missouri is falling behind in digital learning, and new policies are needed if the state is to achieve its goal of being in the Top 10 by 2020.”

Mehan lamented Missouri is not among the 29 states that allow “full-time, online public schools.”

“If we hope to keep pace with the changing landscape in education, we need to start by opening up virtual pathways to give our students more options for learning and success. This will translate over time to better preparing Missouri children to meet the rapidly changing work environments that we face as employers in our state.”

Mehan told reporters he did not yet have a lawmaker identified to file legislation. He also didn’t propose a source for a funding stream to support the expansion of a statewide virtual learning program. Instead, he suggested the program could be “cost neutral,” if some state foundation formula funding could be diverted from the public schools to support the concept.

The money could follow the student, he suggested.

John Watson, an author of the study, noted that online learning often is very helpful to students who lie outside of the mainstream, either because they are highly intelligent and not challenged by the public schools or because they need more assistance than the average classroom teacher can provide.

Watson suggested student-teacher ratios between online and classroom settings are roughly equivalent, but he argued online teachers often are using superior teaching techniques.

“This gives that element of choice to those kids who might need it,” he said.

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