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Little school choice legislation made it through this year’s legislative session in Jefferson City, but one bill that earned the governor’s signature will expand online learning opportunities for Missouri students.

Senate Bill 603 created the Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program, which will allow students grades K-12 to enroll in online classes through state-approved providers at the cost of their school district.

The bill was passed with the intent of expanding course access options for students, especially in rural and cash-strapped districts. In theory, though, a student could enroll full-time in a virtual school on his or her school district’s dime.

That’s created concern among some educators, who fear the law might transform into something entirely besides its intent.

“One of the concerns is that this will morph into virtual charter schools, where students aren’t students of the public school at all,” Susan Goldammer, an attorney and associate executive director with the Missouri School Boards’ Association, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Students can just enroll in it directly and the online provider will collect state aid.”

In and around St. Joseph, local education leaders aren’t so quick to raise the alarm.

”We are really still waiting to see what the larger implications are in terms of practice, where the St. Joseph School District is concerned,” Assistant Superintendent Dr. Marlie Williams said, noting the potential benefits of the program, especially in rural communities.

Superintendent Dr. Cody Hirschi, in the Mid-Buchanan R-V School District, also noted those potential benefits but said he didn’t feel the new law would have a significant impact in Faucett.

”If we have a kid that really wants to advance in medicine or have some more background in engineering and some courses that we can’t offer, it might provide an avenue where a kid could be exposed to some quality learning experiences,” Hirschi said.

Still, there is at least some room for concern in expanding student access to virtual schools, with a 2017 report from the National Education Policy Center finding that only about 37 percent of full-time virtual schools received “acceptable performance ratings.”

”I’m hoping that this legislation helps further the conversation about accountability,” Williams said. “If this legislation then promotes a system whereby virtual education providers are accountable to the same standards as public education, then I think that could be a positive.”

The law does require the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to publish a report annually detailing outcome data for students enrolled in virtual programs.

In the St. Joseph School District, there are added questions about the “fiscal implications” of the law, Williams said.

In addition to some self-developed online courses, the district pays for an online platform called Edgenuity that offers a full slate of courses for credit recovery and acceleration.

”If the success rate is low and we’re paying for that, in addition to what we’re already paying for, with the budget constraints that we have, that would be a concern,” Williams said.

As the program is developed, however, both the St. Joseph and Mid-Buchanan school districts will have to wait to see the full impact of the Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program.

Since 2007, Missouri has a statewide virtual education program in place, called MoVIP. Like the MCAVSP, MoVIP was meant to offer Missouri students equal access to a wide range of high-quality courses, flexibility in scheduling and interactive online learning that is neither time- nor place-dependent.

According to the Show-Me Institute, an organization that supports school choice legislation, “few students have access to (MoVIP courses) because their families would have to pay out of pocket.”

Zach McNulty can be reached at zach.mcnulty@newspressnow.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowMcNulty.