Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin on Monday certified ballot language for a proposed referendum to repeal the LEARNS Act.
The decision clears the way for Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students (CAPES), the group behind the repeal effort, to start gathering signatures to get their proposed referendum on the November 2024 ballot. The LEARNS Act is an education law legislators passed in March, with Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders calling it "the largest overhaul of the state's education system in Arkansas history."
Monday's decision was only the first hurdle the group had to clear to get their proposed referendum on the ballot. The group has until July 31 to collect about 54,522 signatures from registered voters that will have to come from voters in at least 50 different counties, according to a new state law. After it collects the signatures it needs, CAPES will then turn its signed petition in to the secretary of state's office for review.
Under the Arkansas Constitution, citizens can put a law passed in the most recent legislative session to a referendum, but before CAPES can start collecting signatures it needs to have its petition cleared by the attorney general's office. Under Arkansas law, the attorney general reviews the popular name and ballot title, a summary of the law voters will consider, for proposed referendums and constitutional amendments.
The attorney general's office had rejected two prior attempts by the group, saying their proposed ballot language was insufficient and misleading. But after the group met with Griffin last month and resubmitted a more extensive 16-page ballot title, the longest in Arkansas history, Griffin gave the group the go-ahead to start gathering signatures.
"The legislature has authorized the Attorney General to reject a ballot title for only one reason: if it is misleading," Griffin said in a statement. "Because this ballot title largely cuts and pastes at great length from LEARNS, I cannot conclude that it is misleading."
The summary included in the petition has to "adequately summarize the underlying law, so voters can get a fair understanding of what they're being asked to support or oppose," Griffin said in a video last month explaining the process.
For CAPES, properly summarizing the 145-page LEARNS Act has been a challenge, with the attorney general's office saying the group has left out key parts of the legislation in their overview.
Even with his approval, it may not mean the ballot title will withstand a legal challenge, Griffin said. "This ballot title, which is more than 8,000 words, is the longest in Arkansas history by a large margin," Griffin said in a statement. "The Court has cited length and complexity as major factors in rejecting ballot titles with 550, 587, 709 and 727 words. The Arkansas Supreme Court will be the sole arbiter of whether this ballot title is too lengthy and complex if it is challenged at a later stage in the referendum process."
"I am incredibly proud of the hard work of our team and getting the approval from the Attorney General's office," Veronica McClane, chair of CAPES, said in a statement. "While I am excited to move forward with getting signatures for our petition, I am also disappointed the Attorney General feels our ballot title will be rejected by the Arkansas Supreme Court, even though he has the right to amend our submission as needed. The people deserve to be heard on this important issue, and we will continue to work to make that happen."
The legislation is a wide-ranging piece of legislation, championed by Sanders, which includes raises for teachers, a new voucher program to allow students to use state dollars to attend a private or home school, a ban on Critical Race Theory and new literacy standards for elementary school students. The bill passed with super majorities in both chambers of the GOP-dominated General Assembly, with only a few Republicans joining every Democrat in voting against the LEARNS Act.
Sanders has criticized the repeal effort as sour grapes by Democrats who couldn't stop her education bill as it made its way through the Legislature during the session. Grappe, executive director of CAPES and chair of the Democratic Party of Arkansas' Rural Caucus, has voiced a common criticism of the LEARNS Act, saying the legislation's voucher program will divert scarce funds from public schools.
"It's ironic the same opponents of LEARNS that complained about reading  pages of a bill, now submitted a ballot title of more than 8,000 words, which is the longest in Arkansas history," Alexa Henning, a spokeswoman for Sanders, said in a statement. "The radical left are playing political games with our kids' futures and sowing unnecessary turmoil in schools."
McClane is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Arkansas Department of Education attempting to prevent the state from enforcing the LEARNS Act. The lawsuit, which was filed in Pulaski County Circuit Court last month, argues lawmakers erred when passing the LEARNS Act, by failing to hold a separate vote on its emergency clause, a parliamentary move that allows legislation to take effect immediately. Without an emergency clause, laws do not come into effect until 91 days after the Legislative session ends.
If successful, the lawsuit would only delay the implementation of the LEARNS Act, not overturn the law. But if CAPES is successful in its signature-collecting effort, the state would be "held in abeyance," meaning it would not take effect until after a potential November 2024 referendum.
On May 26, Circuit Court Judge Herbert Wright issued an order preventing the state from enforcing the LEARNS Act until a June 20 hearing, prompting a quick appeal to the Arkansas Supreme Court from the attorney general's office. In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled Wright's order blocking the state from enforcing the LEARNS Act will remain in place for now.
However, the Supreme Court has not weighed in on the attorney general's office's appeal, something it could do later this week.