CAPES group short of signatures to repeal LEARNS Act; new initiative planned

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 1,679 views 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information.

The referendum effort to repeal the LEARNS Act, Gov. Sarah Sanders’ education reform law, fell less than 500 signatures short of the 54,422 it needed to have a chance to qualify for the November 2024 ballot, the group’s executive director estimated shortly after the deadline passed to turn in petitions Monday (July 31).

Steve Grappe with Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students, or CAPES, made the estimate after he and other volunteers delivered boxes of petitions to Secretary of State employees.

An official count by state officials will proceed in case CAPES miscounted its petition signatures. If it reaches 54,422 signatures and at least 75% are valid because they came from registered voters, it would qualify for an additional 30-day “cure period.”

Afterwards, Grappe told reporters that the group’s efforts are not done. He said it now will focus on passing a citizen-led constitutional amendment that would require private schools accepting public money to comply with the same rules that public schools do, such as providing transportation and accepting students with disabilities. It also would define “equity” as it applies to schools.

“We’ve already got one in the works. We’ve already done polling and a focus group on it. Next thing we’re going to take it to the teachers and superintendents like they should have done with this,” he said, referring to the LEARNS Act.

The CAPES group, which he said numbers about 2,500 people, will also form a political action committee that will support school board candidates who support public schools.

Although litigation is still pending on procedures related to the emergency clause action of the LEARNS Act, the law is set to go into effect Tuesday (Aug. 1).

The LEARNS Act is Sanders’ signature education law that increased the minimum teacher salary to $50,000 and gave families access to public funds for private and homeschooling expenses.

Sanders provided this statement to Talk Business & Politics on the news of CAPES’ shortfall.

“I ran for governor not to protect the failed status quo, but to make bold transformational change. Arkansas LEARNS is the education reform our state needs and voted for, and tomorrow this law takes effect delivering higher teacher pay, literacy coaches, and empowering parents to choose the best education for their kids,” she said.

About three dozen CAPES volunteers, many of them wearing capes, frantically organized boxes by county at the Secretary of State’s office as the minutes ticked down to the 5 p.m. deadline. One petition was being notarized with three minutes left. They were 747 signatures short when they delivered the boxes, but added additional petitions to the count during that time.

With about 90 seconds left until 5 p.m., Grappe announced, “All CAPES personnel people. Thank you, we can stop. It is what it is.”

Earlier in the day, CAPES said it was roughly 5,800 signatures short as of 9 a.m., eight hours before its deadline.

Grappe said when he woke up this morning, he didn’t think the group would be able to close the gap.

“We got together after we got through counting at 5 o’clock in the morning, and we decided we’re going to pull out all stops, and we’re going to ask the state of Arkansas if they’ll jump in with us, and they did,” Grappe said.

He said the all-volunteer group had collected roughly 28,000 signatures in the last week. Earlier today, he said the group originally did not have events planned for today, but it should have.

“If we had two more days, if we had one more day, this wouldn’t happen,” he said. “It would be on the ballot. We’d be fighting in court.”

A state law passed this past legislative session increased from 15 to 50 the number of counties where signatures from at least 3% of voters are required. The group said it reached that threshold in 48 counties. The Constitution requires only 15 counties, and Grappe said this morning that it had planned litigation if necessary.

Grappe said the referendum is needed because it’s not clear how the costs of the LEARNS Act will be funded, because the referendum would prevent big businesses from moving education to private schools, and because the Constitution says public money must be used for public uses.

Laurie Lee, executive director of The Reform Alliance, which supports educational choice, recently praised the LEARNS Act in comments to Talk Business & Politics, saying, “Think about the opportunities now that are going to come to rural Arkansas when providers can say, ‘Okay, well there’s a hundred kids that live in this part of Arkansas that need a private school. Let’s open one up, because now we know that they’re going to be able to afford it.’”

Grappe said CAPES had considered not turning in its signatures today if it were short because of the expense it would cost the state to count the signatures. It ultimately decided to do so because of the effort Arkansans had made to sign the petitions.

He said the group had only 55 days, not the 90 as required by the Constitution, because the attorney general’s office rejected CAPES’ earlier petitions over ballot title issues.

“We did so much in a three-month period to get within 700. … I’m heartbroken because I know that we are doing the right thing, and the more we were educating people, the more they were learning about this, the more they were coming out,” he said.