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Group’s petition to put LEARNS Act on ballot falls short of signatures requirement

Petition lacks 978 names, state announces after count by Neal Earley | August 5, 2023 at 7:22 a.m.
At left, a volunteer with Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students, also known as CAPES, collects the group's first signatures for its signature-collecting campaign in this June 9, 2023 file photo. At right, the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock is shown from an aerial view in a Sept. 17, 2014 file photo. (Left, photo courtesy CAPES; right, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo)

An effort to put Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' education overhaul law to a referendum failed to get enough signatures, the Arkansas secretary of state's office said Friday.

According to a preliminary vote count, Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students (CAPES) collected 53,675 signatures, 978 shy of what it needed for its petition to make the ballot, according to a letter from Secretary of State John Thurston.

Had it been successful, the petition campaign would have put the LEARNS Act to a referendum in the November 2024 general election. To get the petition on the ballot, CAPES needed to collect 54,422 signatures. If at least 75% of those signatures were valid, CAPES would have been given an additional 30 days to cure the remaining signatures and collect more.

"We had hundreds of volunteers all across the state who worked tirelessly for weeks to exercise their constitutional rights as citizens," Steve Grappe, executive director of CAPES, said in a statement. "We know that almost 55,000 Arkansans expressed their desire to place this legislation on the ballot in a short amount of time. This indicates a strong desire across the state to do the same."

In addition to failing to meet the minimum requirement for signatures, Thurston said CAPES also came up "legally deficient" for several reasons, including the group failed to turn in a signed affidavit. The group also -- by its own admission -- failed to meet a new condition for ballot campaigns that requires signatures from 3% of the voters in the last gubernatorial election in 50 different counties. CAPES said Monday that it had met the requirement for only 48 counties.

CAPES instead turned in a spreadsheet with an estimate of the number of signatures collected, and signed a document from the secretary of state's office confirming their receipt. Since the group's petition was not legally valid, the secretary of state's office said it only counted the signatures as a "courtesy."

"Self-serving partisan extremists tried to play political games to undermine LEARNS, overturn the will of the voters, and hold our kids back," Sanders said in a tweet Friday. "Today it's official: they failed, Arkansas' students won, and my administration will continue to raise teacher pay, invest in literacy, and empower parents and students through LEARNS."

Grappe admitted defeat on Monday but reversed course the next day, proclaiming his group had collected at least 55,000 signatures. However, Grappe said Friday that he trusts the count from the secretary of state's office but that he still plans to ask Thurston's office how they counted the petitions.

"We are going to regroup," Grappe said. "I would say that in our very first round against the LEARNS Act, we gave it a left hook that almost knocked it out, but the fight isn't over. We are regrouping."

Grappe, a member of the Democratic Party of Arkansas' executive committee, blamed the defeat on Attorney General Tim Griffin, who twice rejected ballot language for the petition. Griffin said the group failed to write a clear and extensive ballot title, a required step before petitioners can begin collecting signatures.

On June 5, after CAPES' third attempt, Griffin's office signed off on the ballot language. The weeks of delay put CAPES under a greater time crunch as the group scrambled to collect 54,422 signatures by the July 31 deadline.

"We certainly appreciate the efforts and impartiality of the Secretary of State's office to expedite this process as quickly and as accurately as possible," Grappe said in a statement. "We are very disappointed they did not show we met the minimum totals. We are confident that if we had the time the Constitution allows, we would have far exceeded the minimum."

Grappe said CAPES is not done as an organization, adding that he will take a break and then explore a constitutional amendment campaign that he said will put a check on the LEARNS Act.

CAPES had maintained over the 56 days of the campaign that the LEARNS Act, despite passing with supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature, is unpopular. The 145-page law covers a wide range of issues, including a program to allow students to use state dollars to cover the cost of attending a private or home school.

The law also includes a $14,000 raise in starting pay for teachers, a ban on critical race theory, higher literacy standards for third-graders, reading coaches and grants for tutors and new state requirements on school security.

House Education Committee chair Brian Evans, R-Cabot, said he doesn't think CAPES falling 978 signatures short is a sign there is widespread opposition to the LEARNS Act among voters. Instead, Evans said the 78-21 vote in the House and the 26-8 vote in the Senate, along with Sanders' landslide victory in 2022, better represent the will of voters.

"I think that represents what the state is looking for," Evans said.

Print Headline: LEARNS Act referendum bid falls short


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