Attorney general says Arkansas moving forward with LEARNS implementation despite judge's order

Judge’s ruling doesn’t bring state to a halt, Griffin says

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin (File Photo/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin (File Photo/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Despite a court ruling that said the LEARNS Act was no longer in effect after the Legislature failed to follow the Arkansas Constitution, the state is still moving forward with its implementation.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herb Wright ruled June 30 a key portion of the LEARNS Act "was not passed in accordance with the Arkansas Constitution," and that the expansive education law should not take effect until Aug. 1. But even with that ruling, Attorney General Tim Griffin has advised the state to continue implementing the LEARNS Act.

"The June 30 declaratory judgment does not order the Department of Education to stop the important work of ensuring that LEARNS is fully implemented by the start of the new school year," Griffin said in a statement.

The ruling comes after a group of Phillips County residents and two public education activists filed a lawsuit against the state over the LEARNS Act, the 145-page law that Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders described as a complete overhaul of education in the state.

The lawsuit aims to delay when the LEARNS Act can take effect, arguing lawmakers failed to follow the Arkansas Constitution when approving a parliamentary procedure, known as an emergency clause, to make the law take effect immediately. Without an emergency clause, laws do not take effect until 91 days after the legislative session ends.

Under Article 5, Section 1 of the state Constitution, legislators must approve a "separate roll call" vote on an emergency clause. When lawmakers passed the LEARNS Act in early March, the state House of Representatives and Senate held one simultaneous vote for the LEARNS Act and its emergency clause.

Wright ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, but since his ruling was "only a declaratory judgment" its power to stop the state from working to put the law in place is limited, Griffin said. Griffin's office has appealed Wright's ruling to the Arkansas Supreme Court.

On May 26, Wright issued a temporary restraining order blocking the state from enforcing the LEARNS Act before he was to make a final ruling in the case. Wright's order was overturned by the Supreme Court, which remanded the case back down to circuit court.

"The Arkansas Supreme Court overturned the circuit court's order, and its decision precluded the circuit court from entering any new injunction against LEARNS," Griffin said. "As a result, the circuit court declined Plaintiffs' repeated requests to enter a new order enjoining implementation. Instead, the circuit court issued only a declaratory judgment finding that the emergency clause was invalid."

Ali Noland, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said she sees Wright's ruling in a different way, saying in a statement "The Attorney General, like all other litigants, is expected and required to follow the law and abide by the court's orders."

"This sort of open defiance of [an] Arkansas court's valid and binding order is unprecedented and alarming," Noland said. "It threatens the rule of law in Arkansas and undermines the authority of the judicial system."

Sanders, who made the LEARNS Act a top priority, said Wright's ruling would not prevent her administration from "moving full steam ahead."

"We're not going to stop until we get our education system to the place it needs to be," Sanders said Wednesday morning after a news conference at the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center. "We're going to fight to make sure every student in the state of Arkansas has access to a good, quality education and we feel confident that we will prevail in the courts as well."

What exactly implementation means remains unclear. Alexa Henning, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the state will continue to accept voucher applications and hire literacy coaches, both provisions in the LEARNS Act.

But it is unclear what effect Wright's ruling has on the issue that prompted the case -- a contract the state Board of Education approved to allow a charter school non-profit to take control of the Marvell-Elaine School District.

In May, the board used a provision in the LEARNS Act to sign off on a "transformation contract," allowing Friendship Education Foundation to run the Marvell-Elaine School District. Since then, Wright ruled the LEARNS Act cannot take effect until Aug. 1, and the state "would have no authorization to enter into such a contract until the effective date of the Act."

Information for this article was contributed by Will Langhorne of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.