Public education group resubmits referendum to repeal the Arkansas LEARNS Act
Little Rock Central High School students pack the school’s courtyard during a 20-minute walkout on Friday, March 3, 2023. Several student organizations protested Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ invocation of the school in promoting the LEARNS Act, a new law that changes several aspects of the state’s education system. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)
An organization seeking to overturn the LEARNS Act resubmitted a proposed referendum on Thursday, three days after Attorney General Tim Griffin rejected the initial ballot title on Monday.
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.
Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students (CAPES) launched the repeal process on April 10, filing a Statement of Organization with the Arkansas Ethics Commission and submitting a ballot title to the attorney general’s office.
The group hopes to allow Arkansans to vote on whether to enact the expansive education law during the November 2024 general election.
Under a new state law passed earlier this year, initiative and referendum petitions must be submitted for approval to the attorney general instead of the secretary of state’s office. The AG’s office has ten business days to accept or reject CAPES’ proposed ballot title. The new deadline is May 11.
According to a six-page opinion, the AG’s office rejected the initial ballot title for being “misleading.” Additional issues included insufficient, inaccurate and missing summaries, as well as “confusing lead-in language.”
CAPES executive director Steve Grappe said his group reviewed Griffin’s letter and addressed issues “line by line.” CAPES has worked with volunteer attorneys as well as students at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Bowen School Law to draft the proposal, he said.
“We feel very good about the new submission and we think he’s going to approve it,” Grappe said.LEARNS Act Ballot Title & Text Letter Size
Among the changes, the revised proposal includes an explanation that a vote “FOR” the ballot initiative indicates approval of the LEARNS Act, while a vote “AGAINST” will reject the law. Griffin said the initial title failed to make clear the implications of each vote.
Griffin also critiqued using the phrase “add additional school safety requirements” to explain “several detailed safety measures” described in six pages of the law. CAPES addressed this issue by adding a more detailed description:
“Existing school safety requirements are expanded to include assessments instead of audits, collaborate with medical professionals and fire departments in planning for lockdown drills, require safety expert reviews of new school architectural plans, require mental health support, increase the presence of uniformed law enforcement, and require district safety and security teams.”
To raise awareness about their cause, CAPES hosted five rallies across the state and launched a website on Thursday. More rallies are planned for May 4 in Fort Smith, Pine Bluff and West Memphis.
If the ballot title is eventually approved, petitioners must then gather signatures from 6% percent of the total votes cast for governor in the preceding general election. According to the secretary of state’s office, 907,037 votes were cast for governor in 2022, so petitioners would need to gather 54,422 signatures.
Signatures must be collected from 50 counties, up from 15 counties. Act 236 of 2023 increased that number and requires that petitions “bear the signature of at least one-half of the designated percentage of the electors of each county.”
Republican Sen. Bryan King of Green Forest and the League of Women Voters filed a lawsuit three days after the bill was signed into law in March, arguing it’s unconstitutional.
The deadline for filing a referendum petition with the requisite number of signatures is 90 days after the final adjournment of the session in which the referred Act was passed.
The 94th General Assembly concluded its work April 7 and is scheduled to adjourn sine die on May 1.
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