Arkansas judge halts, for now, implementation of the LEARNS Act
Little Rock attorney Ali Noland, at lectern, tells Arkansas Board of Education members on May 5, 2023, that they do not have the authority to grant the Marvell-Elaine School District permission to enter into a transformation contract with the Friendship Education Foundation. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
This story was last updated at 5:45 p.m. on May 26, 2023.
A Pulaski County judge on Friday temporarily blocked implementation of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ signature education law, the LEARNS Act.
Circuit Judge Herbert Wright indicated he was likely to agree with a group of plaintiffs that the Arkansas General Assembly improperly enacted the law’s emergency clause, which allows new laws to take effect immediately.
The decision is not permanent, but it could have wide-reaching implications for the hundreds of bills the Legislature passed with emergency clauses in the same manner earlier this year.
The state plans to immediately appeal.
Wright ordered the Arkansas Department of Education to refrain from taking any further steps on the so-called transformation contract between Marvell-Elaine School District and Friendship Education Foundation. He also said the district could not be dissolved.
He further instructed that all implementation and enforcement of the LEARNS Act should be halted.
The temporary restraining order would expire on June 20 after a scheduled hearing in the case, unless otherwise extended.
At issue is whether the Legislature complied with Article 5 of the Arkansas Constitution, which requires “separate roll call” votes on emergency clauses.
The state House and Senate have both historically taken one vote on both a bill and emergency clause while recording two separate votes in their respective journals.
“The word ‘separate’ cannot mean ‘the same,'” Wright wrote in his order. “In order to pass a valid and enforceable emergency clause, the Arkansas General Assembly was required by Article 5, Section 1 to hold a separate roll-call vote, and they failed to do so.”
Wright also said he was inclined to rule that the Legislature failed to establish that an emergency existed requiring the immediate enactment of the LEARNS Act.
In a statement, Sanders said an appeal is forthcoming.
“As I’ve said this is an absurd lawsuit with zero merit and we will file an appeal immediately,” the Republican governor said. “It is sad that the radical left is playing political games with children’s futures. We are focused on making sure that every kid in Arkansas has access to a quality education, teachers have the pay raises they deserve, and parents are empowered. We expect to be vindicated at the Supreme Court and I’m confident that the Attorney General will be able to vigorously defend it.”
Lawsuit filed against Arkansas Department of Education challenging the LEARNS Act
One of the plaintiffs, Jesselia Maples, said the decision buys residents in the Marvell-Elaine district more time for input on the transformation contract.
“We feel real good about it, but we want to make sure that we can begin to start organizing so that we can get more say in what goes in this contract,” Maples said.
If the LEARNS Act was permanently enjoined under the logic of the temporary order, the bill would take effect, like most legislation, 91 days after the Legislature adjourns. This year, that is Aug. 1.
In an earlier 33-page response to the plaintiffs’ motion for an injunction, Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin had argued the plaintiffs did not show “irreparable harm,” a threshold that must be met for a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction. Griffin said granting the injunction would “sow chaos and impose irreparable harm” to the Marvell-Elaine School District and the state.
“If the LEARNS Act is enjoined or the Plaintiffs’ novel emergency-clause theory is adopted, the Marvell-Elaine community would suffer irreparable harm and much of Arkansas law that includes emergency clauses—from appropriation to criminal conviction—could be thrown into chaos,” Griffin said.
In his ruling, Wright said waiting until a scheduled June 20 hearing to decide the issue would subject the plaintiffs and district employees to irreparable harm because time is running out for employees to appeal non-renewal notices they received.
District employees employed under one-year contracts have been notified that their contracts are not being renewed for the 2023-24 school year and that, if they wish to continue working at Marvell-Elaine schools, they must apply for new jobs with Friendship Education Foundation.
“The employees who received nonrenewal notices will be forced to make important employment decisions, including applying for, potentially accepting, and even potentially relocating for alternative employment before knowing the court’s ruling as to the validity of the ‘transformation contract’ on which their nonrenewal was based,” Wright said.
Griffin filed a notice of appeal shortly after Friday’s decision.
“The LEARNS Act provides students and parents new opportunities and better performing schools,” Griffin said in a statement. “It was passed in accordance with the Arkansas Constitution, is currently the law in Arkansas, and I won’t allow one erroneous decision by a circuit court judge in Little Rock to deprive the children of Arkansas of the wonderful and lawful opportunities awaiting them under the LEARNS Act. That’s why I’ve immediately appealed the Pulaski County Circuit Court’s order enjoining the LEARNS Act to the Arkansas Supreme Court.”
House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, also expressed disappointment in the ruling.
“While I disagree with this temporary ruling, I am pleased that the Attorney General has already appealed to the Arkansas Supreme Court,” Shepherd said. “The LEARNS Act is an important and transformative law for Arkansas that as I have said before was handled consistent with long-standing Constitutional practices, which years of Republican and Democratic legislators have followed and participated in. It remains unfortunate that such is now being challenged; however, I am still confident the Constitutionality of the law and the legislative process will ultimately be upheld.”
The lawsuit was brought by Phillips County residents who have informally organized using the name Concerned Citizens of the Marvell Area and by Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students (CAPES), a ballot question committee pursuing a ballot referendum to repeal the LEARNS Act.
The Phillips County residents who filed the suit oppose the transformation contract between Marvell-Elaine and the Friendship charter group. The transformation campus concept is a new program created by the LEARNS Act for school districts facing consolidation.
Senior Reporter Antoinette Grajeda contributed to this report.
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