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In bid to put LEARNS Act on ballot, petition gatherers face uphill climb

6 min read

Steve Grappe and Veronica McClane want to do something that hasn’t been done in nearly three decades in Arkansas — give voters the final say over a law passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

While Arkansans are used to weighing in on constitutional amendments at the ballot box every two years, it’s been since 1994 that voters last had a chance to check the state Legislature with a referendum.

The 1994 campaign concerned a tax on soft drinks the Legislature approved in the previous session. The petition effort Grappe and McClane are leading is aiming to repeal arguably the most consequential law the Legislature passed this spring: the LEARNS Act, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ plan to overhaul public education in Arkansas.

“From the beginning, all we’ve heard is, from [legislators], from the governor’s office, is, ‘There’s no chance, they have no chance.’ [That] we’re absurd, we’re radical,” Grappe said.

The organization they’re leading, called Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students, has an uphill climb. By Grappe’s projections, if everything goes right, the group will likely still be roughly short 17,000 signatures by the end of this weekend with just eight days to go before their petitions are due to the secretary of state’s office.

To get their referendum approved, the group will need to get 54,422 signatures from verified voters by July 31. If at least 75% of those signatures are valid, CAPES will be given an additional 30 days to cure the remaining signatures and to collect more.

Thanks to a law passed in the last session, petition efforts also require signatures from voters in 50 counties across the state, up from the previous minimum of 15. In each of the 50 counties, CAPES will need at least 3% of registered voters to sign their petition.

Still, Grappe said his main concern is getting the overall number of signatures.

“The people want this. I mean, the people want it,” McClane said of the referendum. “So the harder they fight against us, the more the people are going to see that [the LEARNS Act] wasn’t for the people. This was for special interests.”

In total, Grappe on Saturday said CAPES has tallied 22,000 signatures collected by volunteers, but he added there were thousands more signatures the group had yet to count. He said the group collected 10,000 signatures last weekend, and with more events and volunteers deployed this weekend, the group will collect about 15,000 more.

The group has recently received an endorsement from the Arkansas Retired Teachers Association. Grappe said his group, which consists entirely of unpaid staff, has 450 volunteers trained with about 1,600 others requesting to sign up.

“We have so many people volunteering, we couldn’t keep up,” Grappe said.

PROCESS AND POLITICS

Passing the 145-page LEARNS Act was Sanders’ top priority after she took office in January. It quickly passed with the support of historic GOP majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.

The omnibus education law covers a wide breadth of issues ranging from increasing teacher pay to allowing students to use dollars earmarked for public education to cover the costs of a private or home-school education.

It increases the starting annual salary for teachers from $36,000 to $50,000 and gives a $2,000 raise to teachers already making above the new minimum.

The law also has provisions for new reading standards for third graders, literacy coaches for struggling students, a ban on critical race theory, and updated state guidelines for school security.

Under Article 5, Section 1 of the Arkansas Constitution, citizens have the right to refer laws passed by the General Assembly in the most recent legislative session to the voters for a referendum. If the petition effort is successful, the LEARNS Act will be put on the November 2024 ballot for a final vote by the people.

Many of the supporters of Sanders’ education law point to the overwhelming backing it had in the state Legislature.

“They didn’t know what they were voting for, unfortunately, because it wasn’t clear exactly what was going to happen,” McClane said.

For the LEARNS Act’s backers, the petition effort is an attempt to thwart what they see as needed reforms to a lagging public education system.

“The governor campaigned on it for two years, and she won in a landslide, and the Legislature passed it overwhelmingly, so I don’t see the need to put it to a vote,” said Martin Rawls, a member of the Phillips County Quorum Court who has been a vocal supporter of the LEARNS Act.

“$14,000 in the Delta is a huge difference for our area,” Rawls said. “I think that we have children that are nowhere near reading on grade level.”

Laurie Lee, chairman of the Reform Alliance, a Little Rock education group that advocates for school choice, called the CAPES petition campaign a “bad faith effort.”

“Once the law is implemented, and teachers find out they have been misled by these people, and they’re actually getting paid and receiving the benefits provided within the LEARNS Act, it’s totally going to turn,” Lee said.

Grappe, who is a member of the Democratic Party of Arkansas’ executive committee, has tried to portray the effort as something beyond Democrat vs. Republican politics.

“I’m left — I’m not far-left — but left of center, and every time I start that Democratic message I get whacked back,” Grappe said.

Saturday, in the parking lot of a community pool in Little Rock’s Echo Park neighborhood, volunteers said they collected about 200 signatures.

DiAnn Phillips, a veteran educator who recently moved to a position at Oakbrooke Elementary School in Sherwood, said she signed the petition because she thought the LEARNS Act was “micromanaging” teachers like herself, citing the bill’s ban on critical race theory.

“I think anything this important should not just be ramrodded through,” Phillips said. “And so, I think the people should have the opportunity to vote on something this serious and this important.”

Marlan Gordon, a retired teacher and librarian who also signed the petition on Saturday, echoed a frequent criticism of the LEARNS Act’s school voucher program.

“I don’t want to [have] public funds pulled off and put into the private schools,” Gordon said.

The LEARNS Act creates Educational Freedom Accounts allowing students to use state funds to help cover the cost of attending a private or home school. The accounts in the coming school year will each provide $6,672, or about 90% of what public schools received from the state in per-pupil funding the previous school year.

“At some point we as a state have to decide if we’re more interested in preserving, you know, the model of public education which is a system that by and large especially here in the state of Arkansas is failing kids; or are we more interested in educating the public, making sure that our children are able to read, write and do arithmetic when they complete our education system,” Lee said.

Supporters say the Educational Freedom Accounts give families access to private schools they wouldn’t be able to afford without subsidies, while critics argue they will divert needed dollars from already underfunded public schools.

Rawls’ district on the Quorum Court includes the Marvell-Elaine School District, which has been the center of a lawsuit over the LEARNS Act that has made its way to the Arkansas Supreme Court. In May, Grappe and McClane, along with a group of parents and guardians from the Marvell-Elaine School District, sued the state to delay the LEARNS Act from taking effect.

On June 30, a Pulaski County circuit judge found the Legislature did not follow the state constitution when passing the LEARNS Act’s emergency clause, a parliamentary move to make the law take effect immediately. Instead, the law will likely take effect on Aug. 1.

If CAPES is successful in its signature-gathering effort, it might mean trouble for the LEARNS Act as it might be put on hold until after a November 2024 referendum, but even then the legal situation is unclear, Grappe and McClane said.

The effort of actually collecting signatures only began on June 5, when Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin signed off on the effort. It took three attempts for the group to get its ballot title approved, causing it to lose weeks of campaigning.

Griffin initially said the title, a required summary of the law, was insufficient. The one he eventually approved is 16 pages, which he said is the longest in Arkansas history.

Since the ballot title is so long, the printing costs are enormous, Grappe said, with the group having spent about $40,000 to print about 13,000 petitions. CAPES’ financial statements for June have yet to be released, but McClane said the group has raised a total of about $75,000 since forming in April.

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