Arkansas LEARNS Act referendum submitted a third time

By: - May 19, 2023 1:32 pm
Central High students protest on Capitol steps

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 Arkansas LEARNS bill, which was signed into law earlier that day by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Bekah Jackson, a Central High senior, led the event and helped organize it. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

A group pursuing a ballot referendum to overturn the LEARNS Act hopes the third time’s the charm. 

Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students (CAPES) resubmitted its ballot title proposal Friday following a second rejection by the attorney general’s office last week.

The group’s goal is to place the issue on the 2024 ballot so voters can decide whether to repeal the LEARNS Act, an expansive new law that makes several changes to the state’s education system.

CAPES Chairperson Veronica McClane met with Attorney General Tim Griffin and his staff earlier this week, and Griffin told the Advocate “I believe they left the meeting with a better understanding of the ballot title review process.”

In a Friday press release, the group said it remains hopeful, and “the intent of its efforts is driven by a genuine desire to promote transparency, accountability, and the well-being of Arkansas’ students and our public education system. We are wholly committed to working collaboratively with all stakeholders, including the Attorney General’s office, so the voices of the People are heard and respected.”

Arkansas attorney general rejects LEARNS referendum title a second time

CAPES first submitted a ballot title on April 10 to the attorney general, who is responsible for approving initiative and referendum petitions under the new Act 194. The law also requires the attorney general to render a decision within 10 business days.

Griffin rejected the initial ballot title on April 24, citing issues like insufficient summaries and “misleading” language. CAPES submitted a second proposal on April 27 that Griffin again rejected on May 11.

The attorney general deemed the proposed popular name legally sufficient, but said the proposed ballot title must be redesigned because it doesn’t adequately summarize the 145-page LEARNS Act, fails to address all the changes noted in his initial response and is printed in a small font that’s difficult to read.

Griffin’s office has until June 5 to approve or reject CAPES’ latest submission. The group collected $2,670 in contributions during April, according to a financial report filed Tuesday, and is making preparations to launch the signature gathering process.

If the ballot title is approved, petitioners face an uphill battle of gathering signatures from 6% percent of the total votes cast for governor in the preceding general election. According to the Arkansas Secretary of State’s office, 907,037 votes were cast for governor in 2022, so petitioners would need to gather 54,422 signatures.

They have 90 days from the end of the 94th General Assembly, which adjourned sine die on May 1, to collect the signatures 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.

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CAPES is part of a lawsuit filed on May 8 that argues the LEARNS Act is not yet law because the legislation’s emergency clause wasn’t passed by a separate roll-call vote garnering a two-thirds majority as required by the state Constitution. 

Emergency clauses allow laws to take effect immediately instead of 91 days after a session adjourns. It has become common practice for both chambers to take one vote on both a bill and its emergency clause but record them separately.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders called it “an absolutely absurd lawsuit [that] has zero merit” during an unrelated legislation signing ceremony on May 9.

The Arkansas Department of Education has continued to move forward with implementing provisions of the LEARNS Act despite the legal challenges. For example, the agency last week announced members of three work groups that will help develop rules and regulations for the law’s many initiatives, such as career readiness.

ADE also opened the application period this week for literacy coaches to address the law’s requirement to hold back some students who don’t meet the third-grade reading standard by the 2025-26 school year. Applications are due by May 31.


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Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.