Lawsuit filed against Arkansas Department of Education challenging the LEARNS Act
A group of Arkansans filed a lawsuit Monday claiming that the state Board of Education took unconstitutional action when it authorized a “transformation contract” between the Marvell-Elaine School District and the Friendship Education Foundation last week.
Little Rock attorney Ali Noland filed the lawsuit in Pulaski County Circuit Court on behalf of Phillips County residents who have informally organized using the name the Concerned Citizens of the Marvell Area and Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students (CAPES), a ballot question committee pursuing a ballot referendum.
If CAPES’ referendum petition is approved, it would allow Arkansans to vote on a repeal of the LEARNS Act, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ signature education legislation, in the 2024 general election.
According to the complaint filed Monday, the LEARNS Act, which allows the “transformation contract,” is not valid because the legislation’s emergency clause wasn’t passed by a separate roll-call vote garnering a two-thirds majority, as required by the state Constitution.
“While emergency clauses only regulate the timing of a bill becoming law, for my clients, that timing is extremely important,” Noland said in a statement. “We fully expect the Arkansas court system to tell the legislative and executive branches that they aren’t above the law, that the constitution says what it says and that the LEARNS Act isn’t the law yet in Arkansas.”
The plaintiffs are requesting a temporary restraining order or a preliminary injunction, which would delay the implementation of the “transformation contract” until the LEARNS Act becomes law.
Additionally, plaintiffs request that the Board of Education and secretary of education be barred from retaliating against the plaintiffs by “dividing, dissolving or consolidating the Marvell-Elaine School District.”
If the court denies the request for a temporary restraining order, the plaintiffs request a preliminary injunction with a hearing to be set at the earliest possible date.
The Marvell-Elaine School District was at risk of consolidation due to low enrollment, but the state board on April 13 voted to allow the rural Phillips County district to instead pursue a “transformation contract.”
Under the LEARNS Act, public school districts with a “D” or “F”-rating or in need of Level 5 – Intensive Support can partner with an open-enrollment public charter school or another state board-approved entity in good standing to create “a public school district transformation campus.”
Marvell-Elaine has a Level 5 classification and both of its schools have an “F”-rating. The district was also in fiscal distress from April 2019 to September 2021.
The state board on Friday authorized a first-of-its-kind arrangement to allow a charter school company, the Friendship Education Foundation, to run the Marvell-Elaine District.
Noland argued during the meeting that the LEARNS Act had a defective emergency clause, meaning the board did not have the legal authority to grant Marvell-Elaine permission to pursue a contract with Friendship.
The emergency clause argument has been circulating in political circles for several days. Some have argued that the state House of Representatives and Senate failed to comply with Article 5 of the Arkansas Constitution, which requires separate roll-call votes on emergency clauses.
It has been common practice for both chambers to take one vote on both a bill and its emergency clause but record them separately.
Emergency clauses require a two-thirds majority to pass and allow laws to take effect immediately instead of 91 days after a session adjourns sine die. The Arkansas Legislature officially adjourned sine die May 1.
In a statement last week, a House spokesperson said: “Emergency clause votes are recorded separately in the House Journal. Voting in the House is a matter of process which the House has the authority to determine.”
Alexa Henning, the governor’s communications director, said in a statement that the lawsuit has no merit because lawmakers this session did not deviate from procedures that have been followed by the Arkansas House and Senate for decades.
“Democrats and liberal activists in this state are playing politics with kids’ futures while trying to protect the failed status quo,” she said. “With the Legislature’s passage and Governor Sanders’ signature, LEARNS became the law in Arkansas. The Governor is confident in the process that was followed as well as the transformational, bold change it will bring to kids, educators and parents.”