Efforts continue to get an Arkansas LEARNS repeal on the ballot
Update: since this story aired, Attorney General Tim Griffin rejected the ballot title a second time. An opinion from his office said it lacked sufficient summaries, contained typographical errors, and used a font too small to read.
Efforts are ongoing to repeal an education overhaul signed into law by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, while state education officials work to roll it out
If the citizens of Arkansas want to get rid of a law passed by the state legislature, they can create a citizen ballot referendum. It’s a long, involved process; creating a ballot initiative, getting the title approved by the attorney general, gathering enough signatures to get it placed on the ballot, and hoping a majority of Arkansas voters agree to stop the law.
In Arkansas history, this has never successfully happened.
The last time a group attempted to overturn a law was a soda tax in 1994. It failed with only 44% support. But now, advocates are trying their luck at repealing a new education law championed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders known as Arkansas LEARNS.
Steve Grappe is a volunteer with CAPES, or Citizens For Arkansas Public Education and Students.
“Everyone across the state is screaming,” he said. “They do not want this to happen.”
Grappe says it was partially his idea to use a citizen referendum to stop the law from going into effect. Despite the obstacles, Grappe says he’s fully confident LEARNS will be repealed.
“This is a terrible bill and its terrible for the future of Arkansas,” he said. “This will shut down many rural communities.”
The 145-page law is controversial for several reasons. It gives state dollars to help fund a child’s private, religious or homeschool education. Those speaking out against the bill are worried this could gut public education in Arkansas, especially in small towns that may not be able to afford to keep their schools open with less tax revenue. The bill also allows struggling schools to be taken over by charter companies, which do not have the same regulatory infrastructure or elected school boards as public schools.
Gov. Sanders says the voucher system will give parents more educational options to choose from, in theory allowing students to attend private schools which may be out of their price range.
“I’m extremely excited about what LEARNS means for the long-term impact of our state,” she said. “I think it's going to bring about transformational change and I don't think it’s going anywhere.”
On the other hand, Grappe says he is seeing a wave of negative sentiment against the bill, more intense than what he’s seen before in his life of working in activism.
In Arkansas, attempts at citizen referendums are much discussed and rarely seen. The path to getting something on the ballot is filled with red tape, with little room for error.
If CAPES wants to keep LEARNS from going into effect, they first have to submit a ballot title to Attorney General Tim Griffin, who then has ten days to approve or deny it.
Speaking shortly after the group submitted its ballot title, Grappe had full confidence it would be approved.
“We just took the title from the actual LEARNS act,” Grappe said. “We copy-and-pasted it.”
But Griffin ultimately rejected the title, saying it could mislead voters. Kristin Higgins is with the Arkansas Public Policy Center at the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service.
“From what I read in the AG’s opinion, there's no way your supporters who would want to end this proposal would know that voting yes is actually to keep it,” she said.
Higgins spends her days working to give out neutral information on ballot initiatives to voters. She says the ballot titles of citizen vetoes sometimes trip voters up.
“Because when it goes on the ballot, a 'for' vote is to keep and an 'against' vote is to have it not go into effect,” she said. “So, it can get really confusing when you are talking about the referendum because some people think voting 'yes' is to get rid of it.”
CAPES has submitted the ballot title a second time, saying they worked with the assistant attorney general to get the language right for a second approval.
But the clock is ticking. CAPES has 90 days from the end of the legislative session, May 1, to collect signatures. The group can't start until the ballot title is approved, and there’s no guarantee that will happen.
If the ballot title does get approved, CAPES will have to collect more than 54,000 signatures which are then scrutinized and sometimes thrown out. Grappe says he wants to collect 90,000 signatures just to be safe.
This could mean at least a thousand signatures will need to be collected each day, by a group of unpaid volunteers.
The General Assembly recently passed a law mandating signatures come from 50 of Arkansas’ 75 counties, up from the previous requirement of 15. Dean McDonald, one of the founders of CAPES, says they are assuming a court challenge to the law will be successful, meaning they’ll only have to get signatures from 15 counties.
“You need 3% in 15 counties, and that’s very manageable,” he said. “That makes some of these counties where you only have to get 200 to 300 signatures to qualify.”
But Higgins says citizen vetoes often fall apart at the signature stage.
“There was that one group that wanted to do more on term limits,” she said. They were almost all volunteer and they worked their behinds off and they still fell short.”
Meanwhile, the law is barreling forward. Gov. Sanders is hosting town halls across the state to talk about the provisions in the bill, joined by Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, and Education Secretary Jacob Oliva.
“We have funded fully, through the state, 120 reading coaches that will be hired and work for the state and be deployed to individual districts and schools in the highest level of need,” Sanders said at a recent rally in Texarkana.
The governor says over 1,200 people have already applied to serve on working groups that will clear up language in the bill. For example, she says private schools that receive tax money will be required to undergo certain accountability requirements, but the working groups will be tasked with deciding what those will look like.
But while much is still unknown, parts of the bill are already having real consequences. In eastern Arkansas, the Marvell-Elaine School District avoided consolidating with another district by entering into a “transformation contract” with a charter school company called the Friendship Education Foundation. The district keeps its name, but day-to-day operations will be run by the charter. It’s the first major policy change brought about by Arkansas LEARNS.
Steve Grappe is working with staffers in the attorney general’s office to craft a new ballot title, and is confident the second attempt will be successful.
“We went line by line down his instructions to rewrite it, so I feel good about it.”
The repeal efforts come as a lawsuit challenging the legitimacy of the LEARNS Act is also underway. Attorney and outgoing Little Rock School Board member Ali Noland is leading that charge, saying the legislature didn’t follow proper procedure when voting it into law.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders has called the legal challenge “absurd.”