Virtual Arkansas, which provides supplemental online curriculum to public school districts across the state, won’t renew employment contracts with 14 teachers next fall, a decision its executive director attributes to state lawmakers’ passage of the LEARNS Act and an enrollment decline.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed the bill into law March 8. The sweeping education overhaul raises minimum teacher pay from $36,000 to $50,000, ranking Arkansas one of the highest paying in the nation for starting teacher salaries.
Virtual Arkansas will not be able to absorb the costs of that pay increase, John Ashworth, its executive director and superintendent, told Arkansas Business. He said declining enrollment is also affecting the bottom line. Virtual Arkansas works largely with rural schools where teacher shortages are more pronounced.
The raises “hurt because we don’t receive additional funding for that,” Ashworth said. “We have to recoup those costs through our enrollment fees.”
Enrollment declined after the pandemic as students returned to the classroom and the need for online classes decreased, he said, adding numbers are back to pre-covid levels.
Ashworth said the organization had not planned to lay off teachers and that it tried to give them as much advanced warning as possible so they can find new jobs over the summer. He called the loss “catastrophic” for the organization to have to let go of staff.
“It is always hard,” he said. “We care for each other. They are part of the Virtual Arkansas family.”
In an email sent to a Virtual Arkansas teacher March 9, the day after Sanders signed the LEARNS Act, Ashworth attributed the contract nonrenewal to: "1. Loss of funding due to decreased enrollments. 2. Increased salary expenditures due to legislation."
"I am sorry to have to inform you of this," Ashworth wrote. "I truly thank you for the role you have played and the positive impact you have had on students throughout our State."
A spokesperson for the Arkansas Department of Education, which partners with Virtual Arkansas, said the organization's "decision to reduce staff is in no way a result of the LEARNS Act."
"Virtual Arkansas, as a provider, is not even required to adhere to the state salary minimum requirements," Kimberly Mundell, the ADE spokesperson, said via email to Arkansas Business. "The decision is more likely based on a decline in enrollment and demand for courses following covid."
With about 100 teachers, Virtual Arkansas works with public schools to fill in gaps in education. The organization offers curriculum and provides certified teachers to teach foreign language classes or more advanced subject matter via online courses. Districts where there are teacher shortages or challenges finding educators to teach more niche subjects take advantage of Virtual Arkansas programming.
Mike Hernandez, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, said he “was not aware” of the Virtual Arkansas staff changes.
“I do know that Virtual Arkansas has been in place for many years and is an asset to our state in terms of providing virtual support and learning to our schools,” Hernandez said.
Virtual Arkansas works with more than 250 districts, according to its website. Its programs have had more than 40,000 student registrations.
Beyond the layoffs, Ashworth said he is unsure what other impacts the LEARNS Act might have.
"I think we will have to see the rules and watch the process to see how it might impact us," Ashworth said. "Just like any other organization, we will have to adapt with the laws in place and move forward."
Other significant changes to Arkansas' education system in the LEARNS Act include a voucher program that will be phased in over three years, a removal of the cap on the number of charter schools in the state and funding for families who homeschool their children.