High court maintains block on LEARNS Act

Appeal expedited; filing deadlines set

FILE — The Arkansas State Supreme Court building is shown in this undated file photo.
FILE — The Arkansas State Supreme Court building is shown in this undated file photo.

A lower court order barring the state from implementing the education overhaul law championed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders will remain in place for now, the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled Friday afternoon.

In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court denied a request from the state attorney general's office to overturn a Pulaski County Circuit Court judge's order that blocked the state from enforcing or implementing the LEARNS Act until a June 20 hearing.

Justices John Kemp, Courtney Hudson, Robin Wynne and Karen Baker voted to deny the motion, while Justices Barbara Webb, Shawn Womack and Rhonda Wood dissented.

The court did not explain its reasoning, instead asking the sides to submit their arguments in writing by Tuesday.

Circuit Court Judge Herbert Wright's May 26 order, which found that the law was not yet in effect, came in response to a lawsuit last month seeking to stop the Marvell-Elaine School District from coming under the control of a charter school group under a "transformation contract" made possible by the LEARNS Act.

The lawsuit, filed by 11 Phillips County residents and two public school advocates, claims lawmakers erred when approving the LEARNS Act's emergency clause, a parliamentary move that allows legislation to take effect immediately.

Without an emergency clause, laws do not take effect until 91 days after the legislative session ends.

"The Plaintiffs are heartened that the Supreme Court has rejected the State's bad-faith argument that the legislature should be free to violate the Arkansas Constitution," Ali Noland, attorney for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a statement to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

"We look forward to briefing the additional legal issues requested by the court, and we are grateful that the Arkansas judiciary is still strongly committed to upholding the rule of law."

While the high court denied the attorney general's office emergency motion to stay Wright's order, it did grant a request to expedite the appeal, ordering initial briefs from both sides to be submitted by Tuesday and reply briefs by Wednesday.

"I am disappointed that the Arkansas Supreme Court declined to immediately block the circuit court's order," Attorney General Tim Griffin said in a statement. "But I'm pleased that the Court has accelerated the briefing on this matter, so that it can decide this entire case next week."

In a tweet after the ruling, Sanders called the lawsuit "absurd."

"By playing political games with our kids' futures, the radical left is halting teacher pay raises, school safety trainings, literacy coach hiring, and our new maternity leave program -- sowing unnecessary turmoil in schools," Sanders said in the tweet.

"I thank the Attorney General for continuing to defend the LEARNS Act and look forward to the Supreme Court deciding this case next week."

Sanders signed the LEARNS Act into law in March, calling it "the largest overhaul of the state's education system in Arkansas history."

The 145-page law creates a voucher program allowing students to use state dollars to cover the cost of attending a private or home school. Under the new law, teachers are set to receive at least a $2,000 raise, with the annual minimum salary increasing from $36,000 to $50,000.

The legislation also creates a dual-diploma for students in a career technical education program, enhanced guidelines for school security, higher standards for literacy and a ban on critical race theory.

LEARNS stands for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and safety.

The lawsuit was filed days after the state Department of Education approved a contract allowing a charter school group to take control of the Marvell-Elaine district.

In April, the state took control of the struggling district. It is in Level 5 of the state's accountability system, meaning it is in need of intense support.

A provision in the LEARNS Act allows districts with a school with a "D" or "F" grade to avoid some sanctions from direct state intervention by agreeing to a contract in which a charter school organization agrees to help run the district.

The Marvell-Elaine district had the third highest per-student expense in the state at $19,556 in the 2021-22 school year, according to the state Department of Education's latest annual statistical report. The state average for per-student expense is $12,584. The Marvell-Elaine Elementary and High schools both have state-applied F grades.

The state Board of Education used a provision of the LEARNS Act to allow the Friendship Education Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based charter school nonprofit, to take control of the school district. In the complaint, the plaintiffs argued the Legislature did not follow the Arkansas Constitution when approving the LEARNS Act's emergency clause, which requires a separate vote.

According to Article 5, Section 1 of the Arkansas Constitution the Legislature "shall vote upon separate roll call" to approve an emergency clause.

House Speaker Matthew Shepherd and Lt. Gov. Leslie Rutledge, who presides over the Senate, told members of their respective chambers their one vote was for the LEARNS Act and the emergency clause, a routine practice the General Assembly has used for decades. To fulfill the constitutional obligation of a "separate roll call," both chambers record votes for bills and the emergency clause separately in their official journals.

In his May 26 order, Wright agreed with the plaintiffs, saying the General Assembly likely needed to hold separate votes to comply with the state constitution and that the reasoning lawmakers gave for the emergency clause was not sufficient.

In a filing on Tuesday, the attorney general's office said the emergency clause was justified. If the state had to wait until Aug. 1 to begin implementing the law, "schools could not get up to speed in just a few weeks," the office contended.

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