What emergency? Rushing through education overhaul landed Arkansas in a mess

June 2, 2023 6:00 am

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders unveiled her education initiative, Arkansas LEARNS, on Feb. 8, 2023, alongside dozens of state lawmakers. The sweeping education law was one of the main focuses of the 2023 legislative session. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

The state finds itself in a quandary of its own making as the Arkansas Supreme Court considers arguments for and against blocking enforcement of the Sanders administration’s signature education overhaul law.

Here’s a recap:


  • In early March, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, with the devotion of the Legislature’s Republican supermajority, passed the 145-page LEARNS Act in under two weeks despite concerns from educators and others that the pace of adoption moved too quickly to properly consider all of the bill’s implications. The legislation included an emergency clause, which allowed the law to take effect immediately rather than the usual 91 days after the end of the legislative session.
  • Near simultaneously with passage of the LEARNS Act, the tiny Marvell-Elaine School District faced imminent consolidation with another district under state law regarding student population size. The state Board of Education felt it had no option but to close the MESD schools, but district supporters saw a glimmer of hope in a provision of the new education law that allows a district at risk of consolidation to enter a “transformation contract” with a charter-school management company to keep itself open.
  • On April 13, that’s the step the state board took, authorizing Education Commissioner Jacob Oliva to assume control of the Marvell-Elaine district and negotiate a contract with a charter-school company.
  • On May 5, the state board approved that contract with the Friendship Education Foundation.
  • On May 8, Little Rock attorney Ali Noland filed a state court lawsuit on behalf of parents and teachers in the Marvell-Elaine district. The suit argued that the LEARNS Act emergency clause was defective because the Legislature failed to follow the state Constitution requiring a separate two-thirds majority vote for such action.
  • On May 26, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herb Wright granted a temporary restraining order that blocked implementation of the LEARNS Act until a June 20 hearing. 
  • On Tuesday, Attorney General Tim Griffin filed an emergency request with the Supreme Court to stay the TRO, and Noland and others filed responses to that request Thursday.

All of this legal wrangling could have been avoided had the Sanders administration not been so hellbent on getting its complicated overhaul of Arkansas’ education system in place for the beginning of the 2023-24 school year.

As I and others asked when the bill was hastily introduced and passed: What’s the rush?

Spectators erupt in applause while listening to a speaker opposing Senate Bill 294 during a meeting of the Senate Education Committee in Little Rock on Feb. 22, 2023. SB 294 would enact the governor’s education program. The committee chair warned attendees that they would be forced to leave the meeting if they interrupted again. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
Spectators at a February 22, 2023, Arkansas Senate hearing committee erupt in applause while listening to a speaker opposed Senate Bill 294, which became the LEARNS Act. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Wouldn’t it have made more sense to carefully consider all of the bill’s many moving parts, then pass it (that was never in doubt) with an effective date in time for the 2024-25 school year? As it is, parts of the law don’t take effect until then or later — a fact that helps support the lawsuit’s argument that the law fails the “emergency” test.

But noooo, Sanders and her legislative lackeys needed a big political win, and wanted to own the libs! Woot!

Yes, the law throws a bone to teachers with the minimum $50,000 salary and promises other changes that educators have sought for years. But the bottom line is that the law opens the door to even more unconstitutional spending of tax dollars on private and church-affiliated schools — something that once was anathema to serious lawmakers, Republican and Democrat — all in service of the “school choice” shibboleth.

These changes could have been accomplished in a more orderly and less frantic fashion if the administration and legislators had taken a deep breath and paused to think.

Instead, here we are less than three months from the beginning of the next school year enmeshed in a snarl of argument and counter argument with no clear path forward that will make anyone particularly happy as I see it.

I disagree with the state’s position that Judge Wright’s TRO shuts down the Arkansas Department of Education. Nonsense. It’s one of two behemoth bureaucracies — the other being the Department of Human Services. Implementing or not implementing the LEARNS Act doesn’t affect a large part of the Education Department’s operations.

I disagree with the Marvell-Elaine School District’s position that the TRO prevents educators there from preparing for the coming school year.

Nevertheless, the current legal entanglement fosters confusion and helps propagandists spread disinformation and misinformation.

And all because the Legislature was in a rush to manufacture an emergency that never existed.


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Sonny Albarado
Sonny Albarado

In his 50-year career, Sonny Albarado has been an investigations editor, a business editor, a city editor, an environmental reporter and a government reporter at newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. He retired from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2020 after serving as projects editor for 12 ½ years and returned to professional journalism in 2022 to lead the Arkansas Advocate. He is a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and a current member of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.