CAPES volunteer Kwami Abdul-Bey pushes a dolly-load of petitions toward the Arkansas secretary of state’s offices just before the 5 p.m. deadline on July 31, 2023, to submit signatures for a ballot referendum on the LEARNS Act. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)
A group seeking to repeal the LEARNS Act through a ballot referendum said they fell short of the 54,422 signatures needed by Monday to put the issue to voters in 2024.
Still, Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students submitted the signatures and will await an official count from Secretary of State John Thurston.
The expansive education law, which is backed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is set to take effect Tuesday.
CAPES Executive Director Steve Grappe estimated the group was fewer than 500 signatures shy of the minimum by Monday’s submission deadline, and vowed to continue fighting for the state’s public education system.
“We might have counted wrong, so we’re going to let the Secretary of State do due diligence because everyone in Arkansas deserves to have their signature to tell the government that they think this should be on the ballot. Whether we got there or not, we worked hard and this fight is not over. Regnat Populus, y’all,” Grappe said, referring to Arkansas’ state motto, Latin for “The people rule.”
CAPES continued collecting signatures until the very last minute. Late Monday afternoon, cape-wearing volunteers arrived at a secretary of state training facility where they delivered boxes of petitions, notarized signatures and shouted out the minutes remaining before the 5 p.m. deadline, all while Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” played in the background.
If the secretary of state’s office finds the petition contains the requisite number of signatures required by law, officials will then make sure signatures came from verified registered voters, Press Secretary Chris Powell said. The office has a full 30 days to conduct a review, depending on the circumstances, he said.
If at least 75% of the petition signatures are deemed valid, CAPES would have an additional 30 days to collect the required signatures. That cure period would begin from the date of the SOS’ letter to CAPES, notifying them of the qualification, Powell said.
The Arkansas Constitution requires any measure referred to voters by referendum petition be paused until a vote is taken; however, Powell said he anticipates litigation will follow the filing of the CAPES’ petition and he doesn’t yet know how that will factor in.
The LEARNS Act makes several changes to the state’s education system, including increasing the minimum teacher salary to $50,000, creating a school voucher program and repealing the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act.
Supporters of the bill say Arkansas has long ranked at the bottom of national education rankings and it’s time for reform. Opponents argue the massive 145-page bill was rushed through the Legislature in a matter of weeks, with little time to digest it.
Grappe said one of his issues with the law is a lack of specifics on how its many provisions will be funded. He also said using state funds to cover private school tuition through the Educational Freedom Account program is unconstitutional.
“To the Legislature that passed this piece of trash, we are coming for them and we are not going to stop until we fix our education system, we get the resources that our teachers need, we get the facilities that the kids need and we give them a world-class education, but we do it the right way,” he said.
Continuing the fight
Arkansas’ Constitution allows citizens to, by petition, order the referendum against an act passed by the General Assembly.
CAPES has faced an uphill battle since launching its referendum effort in April. The group’s proposed ballot title was rejected twice before Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin approved it on June 5.
The nonpartisan group then had about 55 days to collect signatures from 6% percent of the total votes cast for governor of the preceding general election.
Petitioners also had to meet new requirements set forth in Act 236 of 2023, which requires signatures to be gathered from 3% of voters in each of 50 counties. Previously, signatures only needed to be collected from 15 counties. CAPES organizers estimated they met the requirement in 48 counties.
Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, and the League of Women voters filed a lawsuit against the law, arguing it’s unconstitutional. The attorney general’s office filed a motion to dismiss the case in May, and the matter awaits a judge’s ruling.
It is rare for a referendum to make it to the ballot. The last time was in 1994 when voters affirmed the state’s soft drink tax with 55% voting for and nearly 45% voting against, according to the secretary of state’s office.
Approved by the Legislature in 1992, the tax supports the state’s Medicaid trust fund, and it generated more than $44 million during fiscal year 2023, according to the Department of Finance and Administration.
After filling out paperwork at the SOS’ office Monday, Grappe thanked volunteers who he said “worked miracles” during this campaign. He urged supporters to take a break before getting back to work organizing the state’s more than 250 public school districts.
“We have the start of it right here and we are going to take this state back for the people and we’re not going to let them walk on us anymore,” Grappe said.
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