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The Cash and Consequences of For-Profit Online Education in Missouri 

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Grandview has benefitted from its ties to profit-driven online programs. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • Grandview has benefitted from its ties to profit-driven online programs.

In spite of the lack of evidence that districts are actually breaking the 2018 law, and in spite of the fact the sponsor of the 2018 legislation said the virtual program was not intended to duplicate courses that districts were already offering, Republican lawmakers would now like to cut districts out of the equation.

State Sen. Bob Onder (R-St. Charles County), who sponsored the senate version of the 2018 bill, has introduced new legislation that would make the parents rather than school districts the gatekeepers over students wishing to enroll in virtual education. A district or the state education department could object to the parents' decision, but that objection would only be sent to the parents for their consideration.

The state, rather than the district, would then pay the virtual education provider, similar to the arrangement Stride had in Georgia and California when it received hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding despite students' poor academic performance.

Susan Goldammer of the Missouri School Boards' Association worries about the vague language contained in the bill, which states that DESE "shall revoke or suspend or take other corrective action regarding" a "course or provider no longer meeting the requirements of the program," but only after notifying the provider and providing them a "reasonable time period" to take corrective action.

"Even if a vendor is not providing any education to students, we cannot simply cut them off," Goldammer wrote in an email. "We have to give the provider 'reasonable time' to avoid revocation. Lawyers will debate all day how much time is 'reasonable.'"

A district that does not advertise the state's virtual education program on its homepage would be fined $100 each day.

That sort of provision is needed because many of these school districts "have refused to give children access to longstanding, very high-quality virtual school programs that have been in existence for many years and provided excellent education to children," Onder says.

But what about the state's report showing that only 56 percent of students in MOVA's program had passed their courses? Onder says he had not seen it.

What about the data breach? Onder says he did not know anything about that.

click to enlarge Senator Bob Onder. - OFFICIAL PORTRAIT
  • OFFICIAL PORTRAIT
  • Senator Bob Onder.

When presented with the evidence that DESE had reviewed the list of students allegedly denied enrollment and found that largely not to be the case, Onder says, "The idea that this bill is not needed is somewhat disingenuous on the part of DESE, and I have been very disappointed with DESE in its cooperation" on the virtual education law.

The sponsor of the House bill, State Rep. Phil Christofanelli (R- St. Peters), did not respond to a request for comment.

Another motivator for Christofanelli and Onder could be Sinquefield. One of the largest contributors during their past two runs for office was the billionaire's campaign committee Grow Missouri, which gave them a total of $36,400, according to Followthemoney.org.

The legislation has been folded into a Senate bill that would expand charter schools and provide tax credits for contributions to organizations that provide scholarships for private education. On January 21, the education committee passed it on a 5-4 party-line vote, with the exception of one Republican who voted against it.

Goldammer sees the new legislation as the culmination of what she predicted in 2018. "We believe the intent of this all along was to open up Missouri for virtual charter schools," she says. "If Onder's bill passes, that is exactly what we will have, only there is even less accountability for our virtual charter schools than there are for our existing charter schools in St. Louis and Kansas City."

The virtual education program has certainly been good for Grandview's finances. The district was able to increase its spending per student to $11,740 in 2019, a 21 percent jump from 2017 when that figure was $9,700.

Matt Zoph, its superintendent, is also doing well. He made $151,500 during the 2019-2020 school year, a 31 percent raise from the previous year, which caught the attention of the Post-Dispatch.

Zoph did not respond to the RFT's requests for comment but told the Post-Dispatch he was initially paid significantly less than other superintendents and was told "that this was a trial and that my salary would be adjusted in the future based on performance."

In 2019, Grandview also followed a trend among rural districts and shifted to a four-day week in order to address "the decade old problem of the inequity in teacher pay between our district and the surrounding school districts," Zoph stated in a letter to parents.

As to its virtual program, MOVA Principal Steve Richards sees the state data on performance as skewed by students who come and go throughout the semester.

Just months into the 2019 school year, 25 students had already withdrawn from MOVA, according to emails between the program and DESE. An administrator told DESE that "as long as a student achieved progress in a course, a district will be billed for a student."

"Missouri Virtual is a legitimate school option," Richards says. "I am not saying virtual is for every student because it's not necessarily, but if for whatever reason virtual is something you need, I really feel like the program that we deliver is very high quality and that we're on the path to being a very successful school."

If Onder's legislation passes, virtual education providers, unlike public school districts, will still be able to make use of a best educational interest clause — in order to remove the student from their program, at which point they presumably would drop out entirely or reenroll in their public school district.

"Virtual programs have the ability to kick a student out if they are not performing at a level that they deem appropriate. Obviously public schools don't have that right," Herl, the Independence superintendent, said. "It's my belief that school districts will be left to pick up the pieces when kids start to struggle and these for-profit providers start kicking them out."

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