Group seeking repeal of Sanders' LEARNS Act submits referendum

The state Capitol is shown in this undated file photo.
The state Capitol is shown in this undated file photo.

The group behind the effort to repeal the LEARNS Act resubmitted its referendum to the Arkansas attorney general's office Thursday.

Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students, also known as CAPES, is attempting to repeal Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' 145-page education law through a referendum. Under the state constitution, citizens can put recently passed state laws on the ballot for an up or down vote through a referendum.

Before the group can start gathering signatures, it needs the approval of the Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin, who rejected the group's first referendum application, calling it misleading.

Steve Grappe, chair of CAPES, said he amended the referendum following the suggestions the attorney general's office gave them.

"We're new to this," Grappe said. "There were a couple things that made sense [to change]."

The attorney general will have 10 business days to decide whether to accept the referendum as written or reject it. The group originally submitted a referendum with the popular name listed simply as the "LEARNS Act." The group amended its popular name Thursday to "A referendum to approve or reject the LEARNS Act."

Referendums can only be called for legislation passed from the most recent legislative session, with citizens having 90 days after the General Assembly adjourns to get the needed signatures.

In a letter to Grappe on Monday, Griffin, a Republican, rejected the referendum saying it could be misleading to voters because it was "worded in a way that a vote for or against the issue would actually be a vote for the outcome opposite of what the voter intends."

Griffin also rejected the referendum's ballot title, which is meant to describe the law its aiming to repeal, for failure to properly detail the LEARNS Act. Grappe said the referendum's ballot title was amended to make it more clear to voters that a "yes" vote would be in support of keeping the LEARNS Act, while a "no" vote would be for its repeal.

To get its referendum on the ballot, CAPES would need 54,522 signatures from registered voters, which is 6% of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. Those signatures also would have to come from voters in 50 different counties, according to a new law passed this session. After approval for their referendum's language from the attorney general, CAPES will have 90 days after the legislature officially adjourns May 1 to get the signatures.

The LEARNS Act was Sanders' top priority during the legislative session, with the Republican governor calling it "the largest overhaul of the state's education system in Arkansas history." The law creates a voucher program, called Educational Freedom Accounts, for students to receive 90% of the per-pupil funding schools get each year from the state to attend a private or home school. The law also calls for increasing the starting salaries for teachers from $36,000 to $50,000 and $2,000 raises for those already paid above the new minimum.

Grappe, president of the Democratic Party of Arkansas' Rural Caucus, said opposition to the LEARNS Act has grown since it was signed into law in March, with many concerned over the laws' voucher program and state funding for increased teacher salaries.

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