Washington School District Superintendent Dr. Lori VanLeer has some concerns about legislation passed by the House and Senate that would allow students in kindergarten through high school to take online courses for free.

The measure, which has not been signed by the governor, would require public school districts or a charter school to pick up the tab.

The main intent of the the Missouri Course Access and Virtual School Program is to expand course access for high school students in small, rural or cash-strapped schools that might lack the money or number of students to justify hiring staff to teach advanced courses, such as chemistry, Chinese or creative writing.

“Here in Washington our students have access to online courses at the high school level,” VanLeer noted. “I believe most of our students and parents realize that there is great value in face-to-face communication and coursework; however our online offerings can provide for a more blended model and are a necessary part of instruction in certain cases.”

The measure is the only major piece of school choice legislation to make it out of this year’s legislative session. Bills to expand charter schools statewide and introduce education savings accounts petered out early on.

While the virtual education legislation was written with high school students in mind, Missouri law allows even kindergartners to join the virtual school program. The legislation sets no limit on how many students could enroll in virtual school, and students could also become full-time virtual students.

“I think it would be a huge mistake for students to participate in full-fledged virtual charter schools considering what our business and industry partners are telling us about what they need in a qualified workforce,” VanLeer said. “Just like anything else, there is a time and place for everything.”

Traditional public school advocates say the plan would essentially create statewide virtual charter schools, which are publicly funded, online schools run by private entities.

Virtual schools have been shown to have comparatively low performance. An April 2017 report by the National Education Policy Center found that only about 37 percent of full-time virtual schools in the U.S. received acceptable performance ratings. The same report said virtual schools had an average graduation rate of about 43 percent.

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

Meanwhile, passage of the measure is being hailed as a win for school choice advocates.

The legislation could take effect next summer, if the governor signs it into law.