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Lawsuit underway over Arkansas LEARNS vouchers

Pulaski County Courthouse
A suit challenging the constitutionality of Arkansas LEARNS voucher money was filed in court on Friday.

Four plaintiffs are suing to stop part of the wide-sweeping education overhaul known as Arkansas LEARNS.

The group of teachers, parents and public school advocates objects to Section 42, which calls for state tax dollars to go to private school vouchers. Arkansas LEARNS labels these vouchers “education freedom accounts.” It's the bulk of the law.

Plaintiffs in the suit say Section 42 violates the Arkansas Constitution, which has passages relating to public schools and their funding. The suit was filed in Pulaski County Cricut Court on Friday.

“I am just fundamentally against vouchers,” lawsuit plaintiff Gwen Faulkenberry said. “I have nothing against parents being able to choose private school options or people being able to homeschool their kids. But I am completely against private tax dollars going to pay for that type of schooling.”

Faulkenberry is a former public school teacher and a parent of public school students. She collaborated with Richard Mays, the lawyer in the suit to challenge LEARNS.

“I have been looking for and writing about and thinking about angles to challenge LEARNS,” she said. “Beyond my, I think, patriotic, parent, educator and Christian perspective, public schools are sacred to protect democracy.”

She is joined in the suit by public school teachers Special Renee Sanders and Kimberly Crutchfield, along with Dr. Anika Whitfield, a taxpayer who opposes vouchers. They are suing the Arkansas Department of Education, Education Secretary Jacob Oliva, the State Board of Education, the Department of Finance and Administration and Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The suit is asking for Section 42 of LEARNS to be stopped with a court injunction.

“If implemented, the LEARNS Act will drain valuable and necessary resources from the public school system,” the suit says. “And create a separate and unequal dual school system that discriminates between children based on economics racial and physical characteristics and capabilities.”

The U.S. doesn't enshrine the right to public education in the Constitution, but each state does enshrine that right in their own constitutions individually. The Arkansas Constitution has language about public schools in Article 14.

It says that Arkansas will, “ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools and shall adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.”

Arkansas public school funding comes from a combination of local property tax money and extra state “equalization” aid. Equalization aid is calculated on a per-student basis. The suit says equalization, which it calculates to be $7,618 per student, goes down when a student leaves a public school for a private, tax-funded one.

Similar lawsuits are underway in other states that have passed voucher laws. In Utah, Ohio and South Carolina, lawsuits over voucher programs are ongoing.

Attorney General Tim Griffin said: “we look forward to successfully defending the LEARNS Act in court as we have done before.”

Note: this article was edited to add the statement from the Attorney General.

Josie Lenora is the Politics/Government Reporter for Little Rock Public Radio.