Since 2013, student enrollment in the Marvell-Elaine School District has dropped nearly 20%. For a district with only 320 students, that means the loss of more than half a million dollars in funding from state, local and federal sources.
On average, Arkansas spends about $10,000 per pupil, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That money covers everything from teacher salaries and benefits, to textbooks and other teaching materials.
Marvell-Elaine is also subject to school choice, which means it can accept students who do not live in the district but also can lose students to other districts, home-schooling, private schools, charter schools or virtual charter schools.
Henry Anderson, the Marvell-Elaine School District superintendent, said he worries that if parents are unhappy with the Marvell-Elaine's online learning performance, the district could lose even more students.
"When you get a chance to talk with parents who are shopping around for which district they want to go to, even if they are going virtual, they are looking at what is going to be the best fit for their child," Anderson said. "I think we are going to fare well, or at least hold steady."
Anderson is like many superintendents who worry that the covid-19 pandemic could accelerate the rate at which parents are switching their children to virtual education outside of the traditional public school setting.
Anderson said administrators are considering a virtual charter school to make the school system more competitive. Publicly funded and tuition free, virtual charters may have their own faculty, use curriculum and teachers provided by a third party or a combination of both. Some offer a combination of virtual and face-to-face instruction.
Arkansas has a number of such schools, some of which are affiliated with public schools and others, like Arkansas Virtual Academy, which operate independently and use curricula from K12 Inc.
Public schools' online programs operated by K12 have increased enrollment to 170,000 this fall, up from 122,000 in 2019, according to EdWeek, a publication focused on kindergarten-through-12th-grade education.
Similarly, Fayetteville Public Schools report a 50% increase in the district's Fayetteville Virtual Academy, partly because the online charter has expanded to include more grade levels but also because of covid-19, according to Steven Weber, the district's associate superintendent for teaching and learning.
Student enrollment at the virtual charter is at nearly 600 this year, up from about 250 in 2019.
When schools closed in the spring because of the pandemic, teachers and students at Fayetteville Virtual Academy "were the least impacted," Weber said.
Proponents of virtual charters argue that they provide students with more flexibility and ultimately save school districts money. Research published earlier this year from the Brookings Institution suggests "that students in public schools transitioning to online learning resulting from Covid-19 may end up having worse outcomes than a typical virtual charter school student."
"Virtual charter school operators have an established infrastructure to deliver online learning," the Brookings report said, adding that traditional public schools "had minimal online learning provisions and infrastructure for students and their families prior to Covid-19."
However a Brookings study before the pandemic found the "impact of attending a virtual charter on student achievement is uniformly and profoundly negative."
Virtual charters "are ill equipped to take on a more prominent role in light of this global crisis, and recommend that both parents and school administrators be extremely wary of virtual charters' attempts to expand during this crisis," the report said.
Hope Public Schools is another district planning a virtual charter to create a competitive advantage. In 2019, a federal judge ruled that the Hope district was exempt from the state's school choice law.
Superintendent Bobby Hart said the district has long suffered from "white flight" to neighboring districts.
"As our district shrank, the majority of the districts to our south grew," he said. "There is a lot of racial tension in the world, let's put it that way."
"We want to have our own [virtual charter] so that the funding stays here, the student count stays here and the students can still be part of the community," Hart said.
The Hope district's student body is 80% Black and Hispanic. More than 80% of its roughly 2,200 pupils are considered low income, according to state data. Since 2013, the district has lost more than 200 students.
"I think in a lot of ways, charters are not healthy for public schools," Hart said. "Regardless of what our stance is, we are trying to make ourselves more attractive but primarily to give our kids and our families the potential to have the flexibility that some families in more affluent districts have."
"There is nothing that says why our kids should not have the same opportunities," he said.