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Arkansas attorney general again rejects public education group’s ballot initiative

For AR Kids Vice President April Reisma spoke on Dec. 21, 2023, about the need for expanded special education resources during a press conference in the Old Supreme Court chamber in the Arkansas Capitol. For AR Kids has proposed a ballot initiative to standardize education programs and requirements for Arkansas that receive public funds.
John Sykes
/
Arkansas Advocate
For AR Kids Vice President April Reisma spoke on Dec. 21, 2023, about the need for expanded special education resources during a press conference in the Old Supreme Court chamber in the Arkansas Capitol. For AR Kids has proposed a ballot initiative to standardize education programs and requirements for Arkansas that receive public funds.

From the Arkansas Advocate:

Arkansas’ attorney general on Thursday rejected for a second time a proposal to amend the state Constitution’s education clause.

The proposed ballot initiative aims to hold private schools participating in the state’s new voucher program to the same standards as public schools.

In his Thursday opinion, Attorney General Tim Griffin said he could not certify the proposed ballot language because the ambiguity of some terms prevent him from ensuring the measure is not misleading.

“Since your ballot title, as currently worded, misleads by omission, I am unable to certify it as submitted,” he wrote.

For AR Kids, the coalition backing the proposed constitutional amendment, said its legal team is reviewing the opinion and will submit a revised proposal in the coming days.

Additionally, the group said in a statement it may consider litigation “if we feel there are irreconcilable differences between the AG’s office and our goal of providing every Arkansas student the educational opportunities they deserve.”

“The rejection of our ballot measure is disappointing news for the future of Arkansas,” Arkansas Education Association President April Reisma said. “We will, of course, take the feedback and incorporate it into a new attempt. The students and staff of public education deserve to have the opportunity to thrive, and only with these common-sense best practices will they have the chance to do so.”

The Arkansas Education Association, Arkansas Conference of the NAACP, Arkansas Public Policy Panel, Citizens First Congress and Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students (CAPES) are supporting the measure as members of For AR Kids.

The proposed constitutional amendment is a response to the LEARNS Act’s creation of a voucher program that provides nearly $6,700 in state funds for allowable educational expenses, primarily private school tuition, this first year.

Critics argue the Educational Freedom Account program is unfair because private schools don’t have to meet the same requirements as public schools, such as admitting all students, providing transportation and administering certain standardized exams.

The LEARNS Act does require private schools to administer approved annual exams, but only for EFA students.

In addition to equal standards, the Arkansas Educational Rights Amendment of 2024 would guarantee voluntary universal access to pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, afterschool and summer programming, quality special education and “wrap-around services” for children in families within 200% of the Federal Poverty Line ($62,400 for a family of four).

The measure would also establish the minimum quality standards ordered in the Lake View School District No. 25 v. Huckabee court decision. That case, which lasted 15 years, established a process for Arkansas public schools to be adequately funded.

Griffin rejected For AR Kids’ first submission on Jan. 9. The group resubmitted a second version on Jan. 18, but withdrew and replaced it with a third submission Jan. 25 after meeting with the attorney general’s staff.

“We spent time with the AG and our attorneys, and we felt very good about the petition we submitted,” CAPES Executive Director Steve Grappe said. “Obviously, this is very disappointing, and we will regroup and find our pathway forward to advance this to the people for a vote.”

If Griffin approves the measure, For AR Kids must collect 90,704 signatures from at least 50 counties by July 5 to qualify the measure for the 2024 ballot.

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.