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School starts in just over two weeks, and Fulton resident Miya Estill's three children still don't know where they'll be going.

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"Summer is drawing to a close," Estill's lawyer Joshua Schindler said. "The clock is ticking and every beat of that clock is painful to those children."

In Estill's lawsuit against the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Fulton Public Schools, which was filed earlier this month, Estill claims FPS and DESE violated state law by not allowing her children to access a specific virtual education program through the school district. Namely, the civil suit states, FPS has violated the provisions of Senate Bill 603, which was signed into law in 2018.

"All of them learn differently," Estill said through a sign-language translator of the reason she chose the particular program.

The first hearing in the case was Friday at the Cole County Courthouse.

Judge Gael Davis Wood, brought in from the 20th Circuit for the case, acknowledged the tight timescale and agreed a quick decision is in the children's best interest.

"The earliest I can rule would be Monday," he said.

Estill and her family have gained support from state Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis — one of SB 603's sponsors and from the National Coalition for Public School Options, a parent alliance that fights for free access to alternative public schooling options such as charter and online schools.

"We worked hard on the Missouri virtual schooling law," NCPSO Field Director Darby O'Donnell said. "If children have been denied access to quality education, then the law has not been executed as passed."

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She said the coalition has heard from other families who claim DESE and local school districts denied them access to online courses, though this is the first such case to be substantiated and go to court. The outcome of Estill's case could set a precedent for other families across Missouri, O'Donnell added.

During Friday's hearing, Schindler argued the law is straightforward about what programs are eligible for the state's Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program.

Any Missouri parent or guardian has a statutory right to enroll their eligible child in a MOCAP program, though they must meet with the local school district to determine whether the course or curriculum is in the student's best interest. However, some districts offer online courses from vendors that aren't on DESE's list of approved MOCAP options.

The program Estill is interested in, called MOVA, is one such course. It's currently offered at the Grandview school district (which is also listed as a defendenton the civil suit). No DESE-approved online alternatives exist for Estill's two children, who are in the kindergarten through fifth-grade age bracket. DESE has, thus far, only approved a single fifth-grade online course for that age range.

"There are a number of courses in the pipeline," said DESE's Chris Neale, director for the Office of Quality Schools.

Schindler argued that statutorily, it's not actually up to DESE to determine which online courses are eligible for MOCAP. That responsibility falls to the school districts, he said. He cited a state statute (RSMo. 161.670), which says "any online course or virtual program offered by a school district which meets the requirements shall be automatically approved to participate in (MOCAP)."

"The idea of the statute is crystal-clear," he said. "All you have to do is state, 'I'm (requirement) compliant.'"

By offering the MOVA courses and sending an email (entered in evidence) to DESE stating the courses complied with requirements, Grandview administrators did exactly that, Schindler stated.

DESE's attorneys don't see the law in quite the same way.

Under questioning from lawyer James Klahr, representing DESE, Neale pointed to a provision in paragraph 12 of RSMo. 161.670: "No content provider shall be allowed that is unwilling to accept payments in the amount and manner as described."

That's evidence the law supports placing more conditions on the approval of online courses than just whether a school district offers it, he said.

DESE is responsible for overseeing the quality of all courses and curricula offered in Missouri schools. That's especially important when a third party, such as an online schooling provider, gets involved and stands to profit, Neale said.

"Since those entities accrue benefits, we needed a request for proposal process," Neale said. "DESE doesn't have much money in this, but a district pays the provider when a student enrolls."

A district need only go through that process when offering a non-DESE, pre-approved online course to students outside the district during the regular school year, Neale clarified.

Schindler characterized the process as a 51-page "hoop" for districts to jump through.

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