Judge hearing LEARNS Act challenge plans to file for school voucher under law, says he won’t recuse

U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky addresses those in attendance at his investiture ceremony at the Richard Sheppard Arnold U.S. Courthouse in downtown Little Rock in this Oct. 28, 2022 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)
U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky addresses those in attendance at his investiture ceremony at the Richard Sheppard Arnold U.S. Courthouse in downtown Little Rock in this Oct. 28, 2022 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)


The federal judge assigned to preside over the lawsuit challenging the LEARNS Act said he doesn't intend to recuse himself from the lawsuit even though his family plans to file for a school voucher under the education law.

U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky was assigned last week to preside over the lawsuit and disclosed Friday that his family intends to take advantage of the LEARNS Act's Education Freedom Account program. Rudofsky said the parties will have a chance to file a recusal motion to have another judge assigned to the case.

"I want to disclose to the parties that my family intends to apply for an Education Freedom Account," Rudofsky wrote in a court order Friday. "I do not believe this requires my recusal under either the recusal statute or the applicable judicial canons. If any party disagrees, that party should file a recusal motion within seven (7) days of the date of this Order."

The lawsuit, filed March 25, seeks to put a halt to the implementation of the LEARNS Act, after the education law was used to revoke AP African American studies from the state's course code. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, states the LEARNS Act violates the First Amendment by regulating free speech in classrooms, and that it violates the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.

The lawsuit specifically challenges Section 16 of the LEARNS Act, which calls for the Arkansas Department of Education to review classroom materials that "would indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory." The law calls for the secretary of education to "amend, annul, or alter the rules, policies, materials, or communications that are considered prohibited indoctrination and that conflict with the principle of equal protection under the law."

That part of the LEARNS Act was used as justification to revoke AP African American studies from the course code listing, which means students who take the class cannot count it toward their core graduation requirements or receive state aid to help pay for the end of year exam.

The lawsuit is being brought by Ruthie Walls, who teaches AP African American Studies at Little Rock Central High School. Other plaintiffs include Walls' students and their parents: Sadie Annabella and Jennifer Reynolds; and Gisele and Chandra Williams Davis. The defendants are Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Education Secretary Jacob Oliva, who are represented by the Arkansas attorney general's office.

In reaction to Rudofsky's order, Austin Porter Jr., an attorney for the plaintiffs, said "it is somewhat concerning" but stated he has not made a decision on whether to file a motion asking the judge to recuse.

Attorney General Tim Griffin said Rudofsky should not recuse from the case, as the voucher program he seeks for his family is not a part of the lawsuit he is assigned to preside over.

"I appreciate Judge Rudofsky's transparency regarding his application for an Education Freedom Account," Griffin said in a statement. "EFAs have nothing to do with the part of the LEARNS Act challenged in this lawsuit, and regardless, his recusal is not warranted. I look forward to defending the LEARNS Act in his courtroom."

President Donald Trump nominated Rudofsky to the federal bench in 2019, which was later confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Prior to his nomination, Rudofsky worked as Arkansas' solicitor general and as an attorney for Walmart.

Cases are assigned to judges through a random selection process, according to the website for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas.

The case had originally been assigned Chief U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker, but she recused from the case. Baker did not state a reason for her recusal.

The LEARNS Act is Sanders' education overhaul that she signed into law last year. The 145-page law covers a wide range of issues, including raising the minimum teacher pay to $50,000 a year, a ban on "prohibited indoctrination" and higher literacy standards for elementary students.

The law also created the Education Freedom Account program, which provides state funding for students that can be used to attend a private or home school.

The Education Department began implementing the program this school year, with students in the program receiving $6,672 from the state to help cover tuition for a private school. As of Sept. 20 there were 4,795 students using an Education Freedom Account, with 94 private schools participating in the program.

For this school year, the universal voucher program is open only to students who are either enrolled at "F" rated schools; who are enrolled in kindergarten for the first time; who were or are in a foster care program; who have a disability; are in the Succeed Scholarship Program; or who have an active-duty military parent.

For the next school year the program will become open to students enrolled in a "D" or "F" rated school or who have parents who are veterans or first responders. For the 2025-2026 school year, all public school students will be eligible for a voucher.

Information for this article was contributed by Josh Snyder and Cynthia Howell of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


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