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Arkansas attorney general asks court to reverse ruling blocking LEARNS Act from taking effect

Griffin filing warns of chaos if restraining order remains by Neal Earley | May 31, 2023 at 7:34 a.m.
Attorney General Tim Griffin, left, addresses members of the media during a press conference at the Arkansas state Capitol alongside Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday, March 28, 2023 announcing plans to sue Facebook and Tiktok's parent companies Meta and Bytedance respectively. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin filed an emergency motion Tuesday asking the Arkansas Supreme Court to reverse a lower court ruling that temporarily blocked the LEARNS Act from taking effect.

Sixth Judicial Circuit Judge Herbert Wright issued a temporary restraining order Friday that prevents Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' signature education overhaul from taking effect until a June 20 hearing.

[DOCUMENT: motion to stay LEARNS Act restraining order

"On Friday, a single trial judge in Little Rock temporarily blocked the LEARNS Act and put the entire state's public education system in limbo," Griffin said in a statement. "That order has real-world consequences: It cancels maternity leave for mothers who are teachers, puts teacher raises in jeopardy, and halts new school safety programs and efforts to combat human trafficking and abuse. I've asked the Arkansas Supreme Court to immediately block that order, end the chaos and let schools get back to educating our kids."

In a 12-page motion filed with the Supreme Court, Griffin argues Wright's order will "sow chaos" as it has the potential to nullify the 145-page LEARNS Act, saying "it shutters the Department of Education, halts teacher raises, cancels maternity leave, freezes efforts to combat human trafficking and promote school safety, and threatens to delay the start of school."

"And beyond that, the order's reasoning means that every emergency clause for decades -- from appropriations to criminal statutes -- was defective, opening the floodgates to claims that everything from this Court's budget to long-final criminal convictions is invalid," according to the motion. "A single circuit court lacks the authority to sow such chaos, so this Court should immediately stay that order pending its own review."

[DOCUMENT: statement on LEARNS stay motion

In response to the motion, Ali Noland, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said she plans to respond in court this week to the motion.

"When passing the LEARNS Act and several other bills this session, the legislature blatantly violated the requirements of the Arkansas Constitution," Noland said in a statement to the Democrat-Gazette. "Now, the Attorney General's Office is arguing that the plain language of Article 5, Section 1 should be ignored and that the legislature should be excused from following the Constitution simply because the consequences of their blunder would be inconvenient."

Wright's order came after five Arkansans filed suit against the state Department of Education, Education Secretary Jacob Oliva and members of the state Board of Education for using the LEARNS Act to authorize the takeover of the Marvell-Elaine School District by a charter school nonprofit.

The state Board of Education voted in April to take control of the Marvell-Elaine School District, located in Phillips County, directing Oliva to explore the possibility of having the school enter into a "transformation contract" where a charter school organization would run the school. Earlier this month, the Board of Education unanimously approved an agreement allowing Friendship Education Foundation, a D.C.-based charter school nonprofit, to take control of the school district.

The agreement was the first of its kind, a provision of the LEARNS Act, that allows the state to contract with charter school groups to run struggling school districts. But the move prompted a lawsuit from 11 Phillips County residents and two public education advocates who argued the LEARNS Act was not yet in effect because of a parliamentary error.

When lawmakers approved the LEARNS Act this session, they voted on the bill and the emergency clause at the same time, a procedure that allows laws to take effect immediately. The lawsuit argues the Arkansas Constitution requires lawmakers to hold separate votes on the bill and the emergency clause.

Laws that pass without an emergency clause take effect 91 days after the legislative session formally ends May 1, so even if the lawsuit is ultimately successful the LEARNS Act will still take effect Aug.1.

Instead, the LEARNS Act passed through the same procedure Republican and Democratic legislators have used for decades with the speaker and the lieutenant governor, who presides over the Senate, telling lawmakers their one vote would be for the bill and the emergency clause.

In his order, Wright said lawmakers are required "to hold a separate roll-call vote, and they failed to do so." Wright also said lawmakers failed to give a valid reason why the LEARNS Act needed to take effect immediately, saying the only emergencies in the LEARNS Act "are emergencies of the legislature's own making."

House Speaker Matthew Shepherd said after the lawsuit was filed that the House of Representatives records votes for the bill and their emergency clauses separately in its official journal.

The LEARNS Act is an education bill that Sanders made the top priority of her legislative agenda. The law covers a range of issues and changes, including raising the minimum teacher salary to $50,000, creating a voucher system that allows students to use state dollars to attend a private or home school, a ban on critical race theory, higher standards for literacy, maternity leave for teachers and new guidelines on school security.

The bill quickly passed the Republican-dominated House and Senate with Sanders signing the bill into law in early March.

"After we passed the best education reform in the country, a far left judge wants to throw it out and silence parents, allow CRT and indoctrination, slash teacher pay, and trap kids in failing schools," Sanders tweeted Tuesday. "We will NOT let that happen."

Print Headline: State asks court to lift LEARNS Act roadblock


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