The LEARNS Act is again on hold following a ruling issued by a Pulaski County judge on June 30, 2023. (Antoinette Grajeda/Arkansas Advocate)
A Pulaski County judge has again struck down the emergency clause of the LEARNS Act, halting implementation of the governor’s signature education law for a second time.
Judge Herbert Wright issued an order Friday that states the law’s emergency clause was not enacted pursuant to the Arkansas Constitution, which requires a separate roll-call vote garnering a two-thirds majority.
In Friday’s ruling, Wright said video and testimony presented at a June 20 hearing clearly show that the bill and emergency clause were not voted on separately in either chamber; therefore, the emergency clause had not been constitutionally passed when the legislation was delivered to the governor.
“The State may defer to the rules of the Legislature, which allow for such a combined vote, but such rules do not insulate the Legislature from the requirements of the Arkansas Constitution,” Wright said.
Plaintiff’s attorney Ali Noland said in a statement that the “separate-vote requirement for passing an emergency clause is not a mere technicality. It was added by Arkansas citizens as a constitutional amendment in 1920 to curb legislative abuse of the ’emergency’ label, which was being attached to almost every bill in order to bypass the People’s right to repeal unpopular legislation using the referendum-petition process. More than 100 years later, exactly the same fight is happening again.”
Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin quickly promised an appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court.
What it means
Wright’s order means the provisions of the LEARNS Act that were meant to be effective immediately, will not take effect until Aug. 1, barring a Supreme Court decision overturning Wright’s order.
Another potential complicating factor is a petition drive seeking to have the education law repealed via a referendum on the 2024 ballot. The deadline for petitioners to gather enough signatures is the end of July.
Wright’s order puts on hold for now several efforts at the Department of Education to implement provisions of the LEARNS Act before the upcoming school year, which starts Aug. 14.
The department last week began accepting applications for Educational Freedom Accounts, the new school voucher program created by the law.
The agency has also been searching for literacy coaches and convening work groups on different components of the LEARNS Act.
The order also pauses a “transformation contract” between the Marvell-Elaine School District and a charter management company, which prompted the filing of the initial lawsuit in May.
“I will appeal this ruling to the Arkansas Supreme Court immediately and will continue to defend the LEARNS Act enthusiastically,” Griffin said in a Friday statement.
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The plaintiffs face an uphill battle at the Supreme Court.
When the high court struck down a temporary restraining order in mid-June over a procedural hurdle, three of the justices indicated that they’d rule in favor of the state on the merits of the case, rejecting the separate vote argument or saying that judicial intervention violates the separation of powers.
A fourth justice said the lawsuit should be tossed altogether due to the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which bars most lawsuits against the state.
Only Chief Justice John Dan Kemp and Associate Justice Robin Wynne favored the plaintiffs in a dissenting opinion.
Complicating the matter further, Wynne died last week. Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders will be responsible for appointing Wynne’s successor, who would serve until an election can be held. The next judicial elections are scheduled for next spring.
In a statement Friday afternoon, Sanders once again called the lawsuit “politically motivated” and said “those responsible should be ashamed of themselves for trying to hurt our kids’ futures.”
“We will continue to implement LEARNS raising teacher pay, empowering parents, and expanding literacy programs,” she said.
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