Three Phillips County residents and two public school advocates filed a lawsuit Monday challenging the LEARNS Act, aiming to stop the Marvell-Elaine School District from being taken over by a charter school group.
In a complaint filed late Monday afternoon, the plaintiffs argued the LEARNS Act, an education overhaul led by Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, has not taken effect and that the state Board of Education cannot use the new law to approve a takeover of the school district. Instead, the plaintiffs asked the court for a ruling to prevent the LEARNS Act from taking effect while the issue is being litigated.
The state Board of Education approved an agreement Friday to allow Friendship Education Foundation Arkansas, a charter school nonprofit, to manage the struggling school district. The board approved the measure using a provision in the LEARNS Act that allows third parties to oversee public schools through a "transformation contract."
Phillips County residents Jesselia Maples, Doris Ivy Jackson and Laverne Sims and Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit and are represented by Ali Noland against the Department of Education, the state Board of Education, the Friendship Education Foundation and the Marvell-Elaine School District.
The complaint, filed in Pulaski County Circuit Court, centers on whether lawmakers needed to approve a separate vote for an emergency clause when they passed the LEARNS Act in March. Under the Arkansas Constitution, laws passed by the General Assembly do not take effect until 90 days after the Legislature formally adjourns.
However, with a two-thirds vote, lawmakers can approve an "emergency clause" when voting on a bill that allows legislation to take effect immediately. In the complaint, the plaintiffs argued that since lawmakers did not take a separate vote on an emergency clause for the LEARNS Act the law is not yet in effect.
"Therefore, the Emergency Clause in the Arkansas LEARNS Act is invalid and ineffective, meaning that the law is not yet operable in Arkansas, and it cannot provide the Board or Secretary any legal authority to enter into a "transformation contract" regarding the Marvell-Elaine School District," according to the complaint.
In response to the complaint, Alexa Henning, a spokeswoman for Sanders, said, "This lawsuit has no merit."
"Chamber procedure for this session did not deviate from the process that has been followed by the House and Senate for decades," Henning said. "Democrats and liberal activists in this state are playing politics with kids' futures while trying to protect the failed status quo."
The debate over whether the LEARNS Act had immediately taken effect came to a head last week before Friday's state Board of Education meeting over the Marvell-Elaine School District.
On April 14, the Board of Education voted to take direct control over the Marvell-Elaine School District, a 306-student school district in Phillips County. State educational officials put the district on "Level 5," meaning they considered the district in need of intense support.
As a part of the 145-page LEARNS Act, public school districts with a "D" or "F" grade can avoid some sanctions from direct state intervention by agreeing to a "contract for school transformation," where a charter school organization agrees to help run the district.
Just a few months ago, the Marvell-Elaine School District was in threat of being consolidated as its enrollment dipped below the 350-student threshold. Rep. Mark McElroy, who represents the Marvell-Elaine School District, sponsored legislation specifically aimed at preventing Marvell-Elaine from being absorbed into a nearby district. McElroy, R-Tillar, argued consolidation would place a heavy burden for students in the rural district in eastern Arkansas, saying sending children to another school could mean a two-hour bus ride round-trip.
Instead, McElroy said, if the school were spared from consolidation it could take advantage of a transformation agreement, under the LEARNS Act, to help turn around its fortunes.
On Friday, the state Board of Education approved an agreement between the Marvell-Elaine School District and the Friendship Education Foundation, a D.C.-based charter school nonprofit, the first of its kind since the LEARNS Act was passed. Noland, speaking on behalf of some parents from the Marvell-Elaine School District, told the board it did not have the authority to authorize such an agreement, saying the LEARNS Act was not in effect.
According to the lawsuit, Friendship Education Foundation will be paid $250,000 in the first year and $200,000 in the following two years of the contract, with the funds coming from the Marvell-Elaine School District's budget.
The LEARNS Act easily passed both chambers of the state Legislature in March, with the House voting 78-21 and the Senate voting 26-8. During the votes, House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, and Republican Lt. Gov. Leslie Rutledge, who presides over the Senate, told lawmakers in their respective chambers they were voting on both the LEARNS Act and the emergency clause for the LEARNS Act.
The procedure used to vote on the LEARNS Act and its emergency clause was typical for how lawmakers voted on bills during the legislative session, with Rutledge and Shepherd often telling lawmakers their vote on any given piece of legislation was for both the bill and the emergency clause.
While more than two-thirds of legislators in both chambers voted for the LEARNS Act, the plaintiffs argued in their complaint that lawmakers needed to hold separate votes on whether the bill should pass and whether it should take effect immediately.
The complaint cites Article 5, Section 1 of the Arkansas Constitution, which states the state Legislature "shall vote upon separate roll call" to have a bill take effect immediately.
However, House Speaker Matthew Shepherd released a statement late Monday night that said emergency clause votes are recorded separately in the House Journal.
"Voting in the House is a matter of process which the House has the authority to determine," Shepherd said in the statement. "With regard to the LEARNS Act the House handled it consistent with its long-standing constitutional practice, which years of Republican and Democratic members have followed and participated in.
"It's unfortunate that such is now being challenged; however, I am confident the constitutionality of the legislative process will be upheld."
If successful, the lawsuit could put the LEARNS Act on hold until after the general election in November 2024. Two of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Steve Grappe and Veronica McClane, are leading an effort to repeal the LEARNS Act through a referendum.
Last month, Grappe and McClane formed Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students, also known as CAPES, to get a referendum on the education law on the ballot in 2024. According to the lawsuit, if the complaint is successful the LEARNS Act would be "held in abeyance," meaning it would not take effect until after a potential November 2024 referendum.
However, the group still has a few hurdles to clear before it can get its proposed referendum on the ballot. Currently, the Arkansas Attorney General's Office is reviewing the proposed ballot language for the referendum.
The group would need to collect a minimum of 54,522 signatures from registered voters in at least 50 counties to get their referendum on the ballot and would have 90 days after the General Assembly officially adjourned on May 1.