LEARNS Act challenged in court on emergency clause validity

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 750 views 

Gov. Sarah Sanders signature education law, the LEARNS Act, received a court challenge on Monday (May 8) from a group of Marvell parents opposed to the State Board of Education’s move to enter into a ‘transformation contract’ to resolve the Marvell-Elaine school district’s failings.

A ballot question committee seeking to overturn the new law through the referendum process, Citizens For Arkansas Public Education And Students (CAPES), is also a plaintiff. Defendants include the Arkansas Department of Education, Education Secretary Jacob Oliva, all members of the State Board of Education, the Marvell-Elaine School District, and the Friendship Education Foundation, a charter school management company.

The lawsuit alleges the Arkansas General Assembly did not follow the state constitution in voting separately for an emergency clause that allowed the LEARNS Act to go into law upon the governor’s signature. The filing, which was made in Pulaski County circuit court, also questions if an emergency clause is even necessary for the measure. It further contends that money spent on state board actions would be an illegal exaction due to the law not being properly in effect, which could lead to additional litigation.

“The emergency clause contained in the Arkansas LEARNS Act, Act 237 of 2023, is invalid and ineffective,” the lawsuit reads.

The plaintiffs argue both chambers of the General Assembly did not hold separate votes on the bill and the emergency clause. They contend the state constitution calls for separate votes, citing Article 5, Section 1, which says the chambers “shall vote upon separate roll call” and “state the fact which constitutes such emergency.”

The LEARNS Act emergency clause at the end of the 145-page measure covers nearly two pages and outlines a variety of concerns for enacting it immediately, including teacher contract negotiations, moving a division of one state agency to another, and the need to pass regulations so local school districts can set their policies.

In asking for either a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction to halt further action on the LEARNS law, the lawsuit states:

“The Plaintiffs want the State Board and the Secretary of Education to slow down the process and include parents, community members, and local elected officials in the monumental decision of whether or not to enter into a ‘transformation contract’ at all, and if so, the selection of the entity with whom the district will contract and the terms of the contract. Requiring the State Board and Secretary of Education to wait until the LEARNS Act become law before executing the contract accomplishes this goal.”

Alexa Henning, communications director for Gov. Sanders, tells Talk Business & Politics the lawsuit is going nowhere.

“This lawsuit has no merit. Chamber procedure for this session did not deviate from the process that has been followed by the House and Senate for decades. Democrats and liberal activists in this state are playing politics with kids’ futures while trying to protect the failed status quo. With the Legislature’s passage and Governor Sanders’ signature, LEARNS became the law in Arkansas. The Governor is confident in the process that was followed as well as the transformational, bold change it will bring to kids, educators and parents.”

Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs and president pro tempore of the Arkansas State Senate, also dismissed the primary concern raised in the filing.

“The Senate followed the constitution on the process for voting on the LEARNS act and the emergency clause. As I have said since the beginning, when you can’t find a problem with the merits you complain about process,” he said. “The left is committed to stopping teacher pay raises in Arkansas, but the Legislature and Gov. Sanders will honor our commitments to teachers.”

Speaker of the House Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said he had great confidence his chamber has followed the state constitution.

“As we have stated before, emergency clause votes are recorded separately in the House Journal. Voting in the House is a matter of process which the House has the authority to determine. With regard to the LEARNS Act, the House handled it consistent with its long-standing Constitutional practice, which years of Republican and Democratic members have followed and participated in. It’s unfortunate that such is now being challenged; however, I am confident the Constitutionality of the legislative process will be upheld,” he said.

Ali Noland, the attorney who is representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, provided this comment to Talk Business & Politics beyond today’s legal filing.

“The LEARNS Act was rushed through the legislature, and the emergency clause in the bill wasn’t passed correctly. It’s simply invalid under the plain language of the Arkansas Constitution,” said Noland, who is also a member of the Little Rock School Board. “While emergency clauses only regulate the timing of a bill becoming law, for my clients, that timing is extremely important. We fully expect the Arkansas Court system to tell the legislative and executive branches that they aren’t above the law, that the constitution says what it says, and that the LEARNS Act isn’t the law yet in Arkansas.”

The timing of the new law would certainly have an impact on CAPES, the group seeking to overturn the LEARNS Act. Their efforts to get a statewide vote on the measure would receive more time to collect signatures if they can get their ballot title approved by Attorney General Tim Griffin. The emergency clause speeds up the deadline for signature collection by months, whereas the law going into effect without an emergency clause would extend the deadline. If CAPES were to turn in enough valid signatures and qualify for a ballot referendum, it would put the entire LEARNS Act on hold until the public vote.