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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – For a student to attend virtual school in Missouri, the local school district must approve it, and lately, inside the Capitol, there’s a big push to leave the decision up to the parent instead.

Under current state law, school districts are the gatekeeper; meaning, they have the final say on if a student moves to online learning. Some parents never hear back from administrators, which is why dozens gathered in the Capitol on Thursday in hopes of changing who gets to make that choice.

“This is not just a one-off problem,” Steven Richards, the director of Missouri Virtual Academy (MOVA), said. “It’s not just one family, it’s not just one school district. We see issues getting enrolled in Missouri Virtual Academy across the state — 365 days a year.”

Back in 2018, the Missouri General Assembly expanded access to online learning for kindergarten through 12th grade.

“What we’ve seen from that is a ton of barriers have been put up by a number of public school districts,” Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden (R-Columbia) said.

The program is called Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program (MOCAP), which allows parents to enroll their children in virtual learning courses, as long as the district approves, and then pays for it.

“We’re the only state in the country where the local public school district is the gatekeeper for deciding if the kid can get into the program,” Rowden said. “This conversation has been happening a lot around parental involvement and how much say parents should have in their kids’ education.”

MOVA is one of a dozen virtual school providers in the state. The program has roughly 1,000 kids and has been around for three years.

“The biggest hurdle that we see is that districts aren’t always giving the families the options they have to choose,” Richards said. “Districts will say, well you can go to this virtual option, then you can mention another option and they will say no, we want you to go to this one. Under the law, once they are approved for virtual learning, they can choose whichever virtual learning they like.”

Rowden is one of two lawmakers this legislative session looking to give the district more of an advisory role and leave the decision to the parents.

“I want to fix the problem, I don’t think that the bill does a whole lot more than what the initiative aimed to do, it’s just not carried out that way,” Rowden said.

Ade Pious struggled before the pandemic, enrolling her two boys into online schooling. She said Jefferson City School District wouldn’t give her an answer on if the boys could be enrolled in MOVA.

“I insisted that they were doing better, and this was backed up by their grades and so basically they could not deny me anymore because I then had proof that this was working so much better,” Pious said.

One of her sons has a hearing loss, making online school easier for him to focus.

“He has problems with changing classes in the hall, the peripheral sounds, the noise, all of the chaos and going back and forth,” Pious said. “His educational experience has improved drastically through virtual education.”

Before, her son was getting Fs and Ds in school, but now, he’s getting As. She’s asking legislators to change school districts from being the gatekeeper and allowing parents to make the choice.

“There are other parents out there who have similar issues and would get a good experience with this if they were able to make their own decisions,” Pious said.

Back in 2020, the state Board of Education put a timeframe in place for school districts, requiring administrators to respond to parents within 30 days of the request to enroll their students into MOCAP.

Rep. Phil Christofanelli (R-St. Peters) has also filed legislation. Under both bills, school districts or charter schools would be required to pay the virtual program provider in full within 60 days of receiving an invoice. If not paid, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education can make the payment and then withhold funding from that school.

Local school districts have previously spoken in opposition to similar legislation.