Organization launches effort to place Arkansas LEARNS Act repeal on the ballot
A group of Little Rock Central High School students and others met on the steps of the state Capitol on March 8, 2023 to express their opposition to the LEARNS Act, which was signed into law earlier that day by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
A group of public school supporters took the first step Monday to pursue a referendum petition to repeal the LEARNS Act, a wide-ranging education law signed by Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders in March.
Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students (CAPES) filed a statement of organization with the Arkansas Ethics Commission on Monday and submitted their ballot title to the Attorney General’s office. If it’s approved, the group will start gathering signatures to get their referendum on the ballot.
CAPES Executive Director Steve Grappe said that, as the Rural Caucus of Arkansas chairman, he’s spoken to people in rural communities where he’s seen “such a groundswell of people that are against it.”
“We don’t feel like the citizens of Arkansas had any voice in this,” Grappe said. “The Republicans had this bill for weeks before the Democrats did, and we got it for less than 48 hours before it went to committee. It’s all rushed.”
The LEARNS Act changes several aspects of the state’s education system, including teacher pay, per-student funding, graduation requirements and literacy standards. Because the law has an emergency clause, it went into effect as soon as the governor signed it.
Grappe said there are positive aspects of the new law, like raising the state’s minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000, but he said people have concerns about finding sufficient funding to support the bill’s many initiatives.
“It’s a mess and it’s going to bankrupt a bunch of the rural communities in Arkansas…we want literacy coaches, we want teacher raises, we want all that stuff, but the bill altogether as a bill, the good does not overcome the bad,” he said.
State officials have said many of the details of the new law, including specific funding sources, will be worked out in the coming weeks and months.
The Arkansas Department of Education started the process by inviting the public to apply to participate in six work groups that will help develop the rules and regulations to implement the law’s policies.
Education Secretary Jacob Oliva has been meeting with school administrators to answer questions about the law, and the State Board of Education is scheduled to have a working session to discuss the LEARNS Act, academic standards and assessment on Friday.
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Article 5, Section 1 of the Arkansas Constitution allows citizens to, by petition, order the referendum against an act, item of appropriation bill or measure passed by the General Assembly. Arkansans may then vote whether to keep the law in the place or repeal.
A measure referred to the citizens by referendum petition “shall remain in abeyance until such vote is taken.”
The petition must be filed no later than 90 days after the final adjournment of the session in which the Act passed. Arkansas lawmakers wrapped up their work Friday and are scheduled to return May 1 to officially adjourn the legislative session, sine die.
Petitioners must gather signatures from 6% percent of the total votes cast for governor of the preceding general election, or just more than 54,000 signatures this cycle.
The process for pursuing a referenda and other ballot initiatives changed during the recent legislative session. Legislators approved two new laws that went into effect as soon as Gov. Sanders signed them into law.
The first, Act 236, increases the requirement to gather signatures from 15 counties to 50 counties. The law also requires that petitions “bear the signature of at least one-half of the designated percentage of the electors of each county.”
The bill was signed into law March 7 and a lawsuit was filed March 10 challenging it. The lawsuit, filed by state Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, and the League of Women Voters, argues the new law is unconstitutional.
In recent years, Arkansans have rejected similar proposals that raise the bar for passing ballot initiatives. In 2020, about 56% of Arkansas voters rejected Issue 3, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have required canvassers to gather signatures from at least 45 counties, among other things.
In 2022, roughly 59% of Arkansas voters rejected Issue 2, which would have required a 60% majority to pass most statewide ballot initiatives.
Under a second new law, Act 194, initiative and referendum petitions must be submitted for approval to the attorney general instead of the secretary of state. Attorney General Tim Griffin has 10 business days to approve the ballot title and popular name or substitute “a more suitable and correct” one.
If the Attorney General determines the ballot title is misleading, he may reject it, state his reasons and instruct the petitioners to redesign the proposed measure in a manner that would not be misleading. If the attorney general refuses to act or if the sponsors “feel aggrieved” by his actions, the sponsors may petition the Arkansas Supreme Court.
Under the new law, if the secretary of state determines the petition signatures are insufficient, the sponsors may also challenge that determination by petitioning the Supreme Court.
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