Analysis: Budget cuts could unplug virtual school

Monday, November 2, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 11:56 a.m. CST, Tuesday, November 3, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — Budget cuts could force a Missouri school to close midway through the academic year, leaving students with half-earned credits scrambling to complete their education.

Some students, just a few credits shy of graduation, could wind up as high school dropouts. Others, struggling with cancer, could miss their only chance to earn a degree.

The school in question is the Missouri Virtual Instruction Program, which offers Internet-based courses for everyone from kindergartners to high school seniors. The online public school began just three years ago and has already served a couple thousand students.

About half the children are taking courses to supplement their education in traditional public or private school classrooms. For the other half, the online school is their only school.

Gov. Jay Nixon announced last week that he was halting state funding for the online school's second semester as part of $204 million in budget cuts caused by declining state revenues.

The Democratic governor said students could still continue their courses if parents or local school districts paid the cost. But that's a big "if," considering many schools and families already are financially strapped because of the recent recession.

"What the governor has done is basically kicked those kids out of their school and removed the opportunity for them to take those classes," said Brian Baker, a Cass County commissioner who wrote the virtual schools law as a Republican state legislator in 2006.

Missouri was in the middle of the pack nationally when lawmakers voted to create the publicly funded online school. Now 35 states have state-led virtual schools or online programs, according to the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

In Missouri, demand for the online courses has exceeded the supply of money from the state.

The online school grew from a $5.2 million program with more than 2,000 students in the 2007-2008 academic year to a $5.8 million program with about 2,500 students in its second year, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Because of budget troubles, lawmakers had already scaled back the virtual school this year to a $4.8 million program serving 1,600 kids who enrolled on a first-come, first-serve basis. About 2,000 were turned away when the free slots filled up. A small percentage of them enrolled anyway after their parents or local school districts paid $325 per course, said Monica Beglau, executive director of the eMINTS National Center, a nonprofit business unit of the University of Missouri that runs the online school.

A majority of Missouri's online students are in high school, and many need just a couple of course credits to graduate, Beglau said.

Because of the budget cuts, "we have kids right now who are saying if I can't get the second semester, I'm going to just drop out and quit now," Beglau said.

Other students are taking online courses at home because they are undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer, and crowded classrooms would pose a hazard for their weakened immune systems, Beglau said. Now their parents will have to make a choice — send their children to school and risk their health, or keep their children at home and deny their dreams of earning diplomas, she said.

"If I'm a parent with a sick kid, do you think I have a lot of expendable cash to pay tuition?" Beglau rhetorically asked, her voice cracking with emotion.

It may be equally unrealistic to expect local school districts to pay the bill for every student in their geographic areas who wants to take an online course.

"Districts are obviously in very difficult financial times, and it may get worse before it gets better," said Brent Ghan, a spokesman for the Missouri School Boards' Association. "It would be a challenge for most districts to take on additional expenditures at this time, though some might be willing to do it."

If neither parents nor school districts can afford it, Missouri's online school may have to shut down in January, Beglau said. If so, the school's 48 teachers and seven administrative and technical staff members could lose their jobs.

Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said the governor supports the online school but had to make tough choices to balance the state budget. The virtual school is funded with revenues from the Missouri Lottery, which now are projected to fall about $40 million short of the $290 million anticipated when the budget passed, he said.

"The realities of the budget are what's driving this," Holste said.

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Cindy Toland November 3, 2009 | 12:13 p.m.

Won't these same students re-entering the public school system require funds? What happened to home-bound teachers for the ill children? From a budgeting perspective, this one doesn't ring true.

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