Arkansas Supreme Court (Courtesy Photo)
The Arkansas Supreme Court on Friday denied Attorney General Tim Griffin’s motion to lift a temporary restraining order that blocks implementation of the LEARNS Act, while granting a motion for expedited consideration.
Three of the court’s conservative members, Justices Rhonda Wood, Shawn Womack and Barbara Webb, said they would have granted the motion for a stay.
The court’s denial is a blow to the state’s legal efforts but not a final one. The court still must answer the question of whether the law should have been put on hold in the first place.
In its order Friday, the high court directed the parties to file simultaneous briefs by 9 a.m. Tuesday and simultaneous reply briefs by 9 a.m. Wednesday.
The three conservative justices also asked the parties to file briefs on “whether the case presents a nonjusticiable political question that violates separation of powers.” Additionally, Womack and Webb asked them to brief whether the sovereign immunity doctrine bars the lawsuit.Supreme Court Order June 02, 2023
At the heart of the case is whether the Legislature properly adopted an emergency clause to allow the LEARNS Act to take effect immediately. This would affect whether a small Delta school district can finalize a “transformation contract” with a charter management company.
A provision of the LEARNS Act, the contract allows schools struggling academically to partner with a third party in lieu of a state takeover. The State Board of Education approved such a contract between the Marvell-Elaine School District and the Friendship Education Foundation in May as an alternative to consolidating the district.
But residents and teachers from the district filed a lawsuit last month arguing that the state board didn’t have the authority to issue the contract under the LEARNS Act due to a defective emergency clause, meaning the law is not yet in effect.
An emergency clause allows new laws to take effect immediately instead of 91 days after the Legislature adjourns. The lawsuit contends the LEARNS Act’s emergency clause wasn’t passed by a separate roll-call vote garnering a two-thirds majority, as required by the state Constitution.
The plaintiffs also argued the Legislature failed to establish that an emergency existed requiring the law to take immediate effect.
In responses to Griffin’s requested stay filed on Thursday, both sides claimed there would be “irreparable harm” no matter what the Supreme Court ruled.
The Reform Alliance, a nonprofit that supports expanding educational options beyond public schools, criticized the lawsuit following the high court’s order Friday.
“This lawsuit is a disservice to the families and especially the students of Arkansas, based as it is on political motivations and using legal mechanisms to sow public confusion about programs that will be in effect in just a few short weeks regardless,” chairman Laurie Lee said in a statement. “Unable to achieve their goals in the Legislature, the actors behind this suit have instead opted to exploit the judicial system in an attempt to sabotage programs designed to immediately benefit students who are most at risk.
As the suit works its way through the courts, Lee said hundreds of special needs students are waiting to transfer from the Succeed Scholarship program to the new Educational Freedom Account Program created through LEARNS. The initiative will be phased in over three years and provide state funding for allowable education expenses, including private school tuition.
“New applicants are anxiously awaiting their opportunity to enroll,” Lee said. “This unnecessary delay will cause them and their families tremendous harm as now they must remain uncertain of their ability to access the learning environment their child badly needs until the new school year is only a week away. They deserve better.”
Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herb Wright has set a hearing on his restraining order for June 20. If the emergency clause is ruled invalid, the LEARNS Act would not be in effect until Aug. 1.
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