Group makes third try to get state AG’s approval of proposed referendum to repeal LEARNS Act

Latest referendum proposal submitted to attorney general

A canvasser takes a signature for a proposed ballot initiative outside the Bentonville Revenue Office in this May 29, 2020 file photo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Ben Goff)
A canvasser takes a signature for a proposed ballot initiative outside the Bentonville Revenue Office in this May 29, 2020 file photo. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Ben Goff)

The group behind the effort to repeal the LEARNS Act has made its third attempt to get approval for its proposed referendum, it announced Friday.

Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students (CAPES) said in a news release it is hopeful that language for their proposed referendum will be accepted. The group, which has previously lambasted Attorney General Tim Griffin, a Republican, for rejecting their previous attempts, took a different tone after meeting with him and his staff earlier this week.

"Despite the previous rejections of our submissions by Attorney General Tim Griffin on April 24th and May 11th, CAPES remains hopeful his office will receive the new submission with the intent to work with our organization in order to ensure the democratic process is supported, and trusts that the Attorney General's office will recognize the importance of expediting this process," according to the news release.

Griffin's office will have 10 business days to review the ballot language for the proposed referendum, and can either accept it, reject it or rewrite it. If approved, the group can begin collecting the signatures it needs to get the referendum on the November 2024 ballot.

Last week, Griffin rejected the proposed ballot title for the CAPES referendum a second time, saying it did not properly summarize the LEARNS Act. Ballot titles are meant to provide voters with a summary of the law they will be voting on. Griffin said the summary CAPES provided to his office was not sufficient, noting the group did not include descriptions of key parts of the LEARNS Act.

Griffin also criticized the small font size of the petition, saying "There is no point in carefully summarizing the LEARNS Act if citizens cannot read the summary." Griffin accepted the group's proposed popular name for the referendum.

After receiving Griffin's letter, Veronica McClane, chairperson of CAPES, said attempts to have a sit-down meeting with Griffin had been rebuffed, but Tuesday CAPES' twitter account thanked Griffin for meeting with them in person.

The LEARNS Act is the 145-page education overhaul Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed into law in March. The legislation is an expansive retooling of public education, which includes a voucher program to allow students to use state dollars to attend a public or home school, increased teacher pay, higher standards for literacy and school security, and a ban on Critical Race Theory.

After approval for their referendum's language from the attorney general, CAPES will have until July 31 to collect the roughly 54,522 signatures from registered voters it needs. According to a newly passed law, those signatures will have to come from Arkansans living in 50 different counties.

CAPES reported it raised $2,670 in April, according to a financial statement filed Tuesday with the Arkansas Ethics Commission. If CAPES is successful in getting the referendum on the ballot, it will be the first time Arkansans will have a chance to weigh in on an act newly passed by the Legislature since 1994, when voters upheld a soft drink tax.

The group's two leaders, Steve Grappe and Veronica McClane, are also suing the Arkansas Department of Education over the LEARNS Act, arguing the law has not taken effect because of a parliamentarian error.

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