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Ballot language for a proposed referendum to repeal the LEARNS Act rejected again by Arkansas attorney general

by Neal Earley | May 12, 2023 at 5:21 a.m.
Attorney General Tim Griffin addresses the media during a news conference in Little Rock in this March 16, 2023 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

The Arkansas attorney general's office again rejected ballot language for a proposed referendum to repeal the LEARNS Act in an opinion released Thursday.

It's the second time the attorney general's office has rebuffed an effort to get a referendum to repeal Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' expansive education package on the November 2024 ballot. In a letter to Steve Grappe, executive director of Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students (CAPES), the group behind the repeal effort, Attorney General Tim Griffin said the referendum's ballot title "is insufficient and must be redesigned."

In the letter, Griffin said the group failed to properly summarize the LEARNS Act. He said the ballot title does not sufficiently summarize the 145-page LEARNS Act that Sanders signed into law in March, writing "sponsors must balance brevity with completeness."

"At this point, you are erring far too much toward brevity," wrote Griffin, a Republican.

Under state law, before citizens can begin to collect signatures to get a question on the ballot they need to submit their proposed language for the referendum to the attorney general's office for review. The attorney general then has 10 business days to review the proposed ballot title and popular name and to sign off on it, reject it or rewrite it.

Griffin's office signed off on the referendum's popular name, "A referendum to approve or reject the LEARNS Act."

The LEARNS Act is an omnibus law that is a complete overhaul of public education in the state, which included raises for teachers, new requirements on school safety, higher literacy standards and a ban on teaching Critical Race Theory, among other components.

Along with the letter, Griffin released a video explaining how his office reviews a proposed referendum and whether its language is consistent with state law.

"Under Arkansas law, a popular name and ballot title are legally sufficient when they 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 the video. "My office's review is about whether that summary is fair."

Griffin said the group specifically failed to mention several parts of the legislation, including its provisions on reporting requirements for vendors and uniform standards for college credit for students who complete advance-placement exams.

The attorney general also wrote that some of the ballot title's summaries are not sufficient, specifically citing its review of the LEARNS Act provision on school safety, saying it needed to provide greater detail for prospective voters.

Additionally, Griffin said the font size for the petition was too small.

"There is no point in carefully summarizing the LEARNS Act if citizens cannot read the summary," he said.

Veronica McClane, chair of Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students, expressed frustration with Griffin, saying "we are disappointed that it took the 10 [business] days to give us his concern about font size."

McClane said she repeatedly attempted to contact the attorney general for a sit-down meeting to review the ballot title but was rebuffed.

"Instead of waiting 10 business days each time to give us an opinion we could be working together," McClane said.

McClane said it is difficult to completely summarize every component of a 145-page law that can fit on a petition for voters to review.

The group is also under a 90-day deadline not only to get its ballot title approved but to collect the signatures it needs to get the referendum on the November 2024 ballot. Under the Arkansas Constitution, citizens can refer a law passed in the most recent legislative session to the voters.

To put the LEARNS Act on the ballot, the group needs the attorney general to approve the referendum's ballot title and then would need at least 54,522 registered voters to sign their petition, with the process needing to be completed by Aug. 1.

This is the second time Griffin's office has rejected the proposed referendum's language. It rejected the first proposal for being misleading, and for failing to explain the LEARNS Act in the ballot title.

CAPES formed in early April in response to what Grappe said was a groundswell of pushback to the LEARNS Act. Grappe, president of the Democratic Party of Arkansas' Rural Caucus, held a series of town hall meetings and said citizens were frustrated with the recently passed education law.

Grappe said the law's voucher program will hurt rural schools and he is worried school districts won't be able to meet newly mandated higher salaries for teachers. He also said some are concerned about the law's requirement that students complete 75 hours of community service by the time they graduate, which he said could be burdensome for those living in farming communities.

"There [are] a lot of people that are displeased with the LEARNS Act, and the people of Arkansas need to have a say," McClane said.

Grappe and McClane are also parties to a lawsuit filed this week against the Arkansas Department of Education that aims to block a charter school group from taking control of the Marvell-Elaine School District in Phillips County.

The lawsuit argues the LEARNS Act is not in effect because lawmakers did not hold a separate roll call vote on its emergency clause, a parliamentary procedure that allows bills to take effect immediately upon passage with a two-thirds vote. Laws without an emergency clause do not take effect until 91 days after Legislature formally adjourns.

If the lawsuit is successful, and if Grappe and McClane succeed in getting their referendum on the ballot, the LEARNS Act could be held in "abeyance," meaning it would not take effect until voters had a chance to weigh in.

Print Headline: Ballot item to repeal LEARNS Act rejected again


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