DESE’s Rulemaking Circumvents Intent of Virtual School Law
In the fall of 2019, a student in the Independence (MO) School District applied to the Missouri Virtual Academy (MOVA). MOVA is an online school provided by the Grandview School District. Through Missouri’s virtual education law, students could apply to take a single course or their entire educational program online via MOVA. When the Independence high schooler sought to enroll in MOVA’s full-time program, she faced significant opposition from the school district. First, the district denied the application because MOVA was not in the student’s best “educational interest.” After the family successfully appealed to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the student was admitted to the virtual program, the district then put another roadblock in place—they wanted the student to complete the virtual school coursework while physically present at the local high school.
You read that right. The student was allowed to attend the virtual school program, so long as she completed the coursework while she sat in a district school building.
For obvious reasons, requiring in-person attendance in a school building for a student to attend a virtual school is a slight inconvenience.
The family took the district to court. And, like all things in 2020, the case was impacted by COVID. The district sent all students home in the spring and changed the requirement to only 5 hours each week of in-person attendance the following fall. Partially as a result, the court ruled in favor of the school district.
Those in favor of allowing parents to choose the best educational option for their child were dismayed by the Independence School District’s actions. Should a school district be able to circumvent the very intent of the virtual education law by requiring attendance?
In response, legislators included changes to the virtual education law in HB 1552 of 2022 which were intended to make it easier for a student to enroll in a full-time virtual program. Previously, a district had to approve a student’s application to enroll in a virtual program. The changes to the law were supposed to remove the home district’s oversight of this process. These changes, however, appear to have been circumvented by new rules put out by DESE.
State Rep. Phil Christofanelli explains this in a recent letter to the Commissioner of Education:
While there were many important improvements in that bill, the primary reform was a full rewrite of the enrollment procedures for full time virtual schools, removing the resident district “gatekeeper” role that had been written into the previous law. The enrollment process for virtual schools (as opposed to supplemental courses) was completely revised so that the parent and the virtual school itself were placed in the lead and decision-making roles, while preserving an input role for the district of residence, if so desired.
The intent of the law, as Rep. Christofanelli explains, was to allow students to enroll in a full-time virtual program without the approval of the district. DESE’s rules leave the district in a position to approve or deny the student and parent’s wishes for a virtual education.
Christofanelli went on to say that “the end result” of DESE’s rules “is an enrollment process for full-time schools that works in the exact reverse order of what the Legislature intended and specifically wrote into law.” He concludes his letter with this: “Please let me know as soon as possible if DESE intends to revise this guidance to bring it into conformity with the new law, or if other steps will be necessary to see that the new law is given the effect of both its intent and clear language.”
It is not clear whether DESE will change their rules regarding the virtual education program or whether the legislature will once again have to take action to address this issue.