Pulaski County Circuit Judge issues temporary halt to Arkansas LEARNS Act

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' speaks at her signing of the Arkansas LEARNS Act at the state Capitol on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. On her right is state Secretary of the Department of Education Jacob Oliva, who also spoke at the signing. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

The LEARNS Act championed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and passed by the Arkansas General Assembly early this year cannot take effect yet and the State Board of Education, as a result, has no authority to enter into a transformation contract for the operation of the Marvell-Elaine School District, Pulaski County Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herbert Wright ruled Friday.

"Defendants are enjoined from implementing or enforcing any aspect of the Arkansas LEARNS Act, Act 237 of 2023, until such date that it becomes law," Wright wrote.

"Defendant are enjoined from consolidating, dividing, or dissolving the Marvell-Elaine School District," he said.

"This order shall expire on June 20, 2023, following the hearing scheduled on Plaintiffs’ pending motions, not to exceed fourteen days from the date of its issuance, unless terminated or extended by the Court," he also wrote.

Wright issued the 10-page order Friday in response to a request for a temporary restraining order or a preliminary injunction from a group of Marvell-Elaine citizens -- including at least two employees of the Marvell-Elaine School District -- who argued that lawmakers did not properly pass an emergency clause for enacting all or parts of Act 237 of 2023, which is the Arkansas LEARNS Act that overhauls the state's prekindergarten through 12th grade public education system.

Lawmakers tied into one vote per legislative house the passage of the act with the passage of an emergency clause, rather than casting separate votes on the bill and the emergency clause for enacting the provisions of the new act.

The Marvell-Elaine plaintiffs, represented by attorney Ali Noland, argued that the emergency clause was invalid and the judge on Friday agreed, citing Article 1, Section 5   in the Arkansas Constitution. That section requires a separate roll call vote in favor of a measure going into immediate effect.

"The word “separate” cannot mean “the same.” In order to pass a valid and enforceable emergency clause, the Arkansas General Assembly was required by Article 5, Section 1 to hold a separate roll-call vote, and they failed to do so," Wright wrote. 

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin subsequently filed an immediate appeal of the temporary restraining order to the Arkansas  Supreme Court.

“The LEARNS Act provides students and parents new opportunities and better performing schools. It was passed in accordance with the Arkansas Constitution, is currently the law in Arkansas, and I won’t allow one erroneous decision by a circuit court judge in Little Rock to deprive the children of Arkansas of the wonderful and lawful opportunities awaiting them under the LEARNS Act," Griffin said in a prepared statement.