SIKESTON -- Missouri students in kindergarten through 12th grades needing an alternative method of learning could look to online courses beginning next summer.
A bill waiting for a signature by Gov. Matt Blunt would create a "virtual school" for Missouri students through the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and state Board of Education.
Southeast Missouri's State Rep. Lanie Black (R-Charleston) and Sen. Jason Crowell (R-Cape Girardeau) are co-sponsors of the legislation, which was approved by the Missouri Legislature and delivered to Blunt May 26.
"The entire Senate backed the bill, which shows the importance of providing additional resources for Missouri students," Crowell said. "It gives students alternatives to enhance their educational opportunities."
Black noted many of the larger school systems in the state are equipped with access to higher technology, but some of the smaller school districts don't have that capability. The virtual school would provide an equality for all school districts in the state, he said.
Black also said to his knowledge, all the education groups were in favor of the bill and no one testified against it.
"The bill has yet to be signed, and once it is signed -- assuming the governor will sign it -- the department will set about putting together a program, which begins July 1, 2007," said Bert Schulte, deputy commissioner of state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Schulte doesn't foresee a problem with the time frame to implement the program, he said.
"By having the year, we should be situated to have a really good opportunity in place by July," Schulte said.
Once the bill is signed, state education officials would spend the first few months finding and employing a director for the program, Schulte said. Then some private vendor or vendors will be contracted to offer the online courses, he said.
State officials would then spend time with various providers and distance learning groups from the 25 other states that have ventured in virtual schooling. A proposal for providers will be developed and will be issued sometime in the winter, Schulte said.
The virtual public school must comply with all laws applicable to school districts including the state accreditation program, adequate yearly progress, annual performance report, teacher certification and curriculum standards. Another stipulation is that all teachers of the virtual school be certificated in Missouri and the courses meet Missouri standards, Schulte said.
Projected enrollments would not exceed 500 full-time students; however the state does anticipate some part-time students so the actual head count may be higher than 500, Schulte noted.
"Since this is statewide program, we'll be seeking representation from across the state and a sampling of students throughout the state," Schulte said.
Any student in kindergarten through grade 12 may enroll, regardless of the physical location within the state in which the student resides.
"Part of the initiative we've talked about is providing for students who are homebound due to health issues," Schulte said.
One concern Schulte has heard is there will be more students than expected who would be ideal for the program, he said.
"But I don't think that will be the case," Schulte said.
While the program will be well-suited to some students, Schulte said he doesn't believe it will be the solution for the majority of the state's student population.
"What we've seen across the country, and it's already happening with a lot of higher education offerings, technology is a much better vehicle and tool (than ever before) at offering educational programs," Schulte said.
Florida was the first state to implement a virtual school about 10 years ago. Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan and number of others have online schooling. The delivery systems for virtual schools is still evolving, Schulte said.
"The major format will be online computer-based courses with teacher supervision from a distance and students working at their own pace," Schulte said.
State school aid will treat the student as part of the enrollment of the district in which the student physically resides at the choice of the student's parent or guardian.
The virtual public school will report aid-related data to the district of residence. The school district will receive 15 percent and the virtual public school will receive 85 percent of the state aid attributable to the student.
"It represents a good opportunity for students in Missouri to learn from what's been done in other places," Schulte said. "We want to be the premier program for the state and create what we hope will be a model nationwide."
Black said the virtual school is designed to help reach kids who have trouble attending school consistently for various reasons ranging from having a disability to parents not being qualified home school teachers.
"The dream, especially in a high-tech society we're living in and it's evolving more every day in a rapid pace, is to be able to give those types of kids access to an education," Black said. "They could prosper and flourish. It could be a very good thing."
"Virtual school" is Senate Bill 912.