Secretary of State: Anti-LEARNS Act effort falls 978 signatures short

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 744 views 

The group attempting to advance a referendum to repeal the LEARNS Act fell at least 978 signatures short in its effort, Arkansas Secretary of State John Thurston said in a letter addressed to the group’s executive director Friday (Aug. 4).

Thurston wrote in a letter to Steve Grappe, executive director of Citizens for Arkansas Public Education & Students, or CAPES, that a raw count determined that the group submitted no more than 53,444 signatures, which is at least 978 signatures short of the required 54,422.

The letter said the group had failed to submit an official affidavit indicating the number of petitions and total number of signatures filed. Instead it submitted a document saying it had collected 53,675 signatures.

The letter said the group failed to collect signatures from the required 3% of voters in 50 counties. Instead, it reached that threshold in 48. A state law passed this year set the bar at 50 counties. The Arkansas Constitution requires that percentage in 15 counties.

“Therefore, since the proposed referendum referenced above did not meet the constitutional and statutory requirements, your petition is invalid, and this office is prohibited from continuing on to the verification process,” Thurston wrote.

The LEARNS Act is Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ education reform law. It will increase minimum public school teacher salaries to $50,000 while creating “education freedom accounts.” These will give families access to public school funds to pay for private and homeschooling.

If CAPES had reached that 54,422 number, and 75% came from registered Arkansas voters, it would have qualified for an additional 30-day “cure period” to collect more signatures.

If it would have qualified for the ballot, the Arkansas Constitution says the LEARNS Act would have been held “in abeyance” until voters voted on the referendum in November 2024.

An attorney with the secretary of state’s office who asked not to be named said July 31 that the provision would mean that LEARNS would be on hold until that time.

The group believed July 31 that it had fallen short in its efforts, but the next day said it might have been successful.

On July 31, 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 group, which he said numbers about 2,500 people, will also form a political action committee that will support school board candidates that it believes support public schools.

Although litigation is still pending on procedures related to the emergency clause action of the LEARNS Act, the law went into effect Aug. 1.

Gov. Sanders issued the following statement upon learning of the failure of the ballot initiative.

“I ran for Governor and Arkansans elected me on the bold promise to overhaul Arkansas’ education system and break the failed status quo. Arkansas LEARNS is the plan our state needs and voted for overwhelmingly,” she said. “Self-serving partisan extremists tried to play political games to undermine LEARNS, overturn the will of the voters, and hold our kids back. Today it’s official: they failed, Arkansas’ students won, and my administration will continue to raise teacher pay, invest in literacy, and empower parents and students through LEARNS.”

Steve Grappe, chairman of CAPES, said his group is disappointed, but not done.

“We certainly appreciate the efforts and impartiality of the Secretary of State’s office to expedite this process as quickly and as accurately as possible. We are very disappointed they did not show we met the minimum totals. We are confident that if we had the time the Constitution allows, we would have far exceeded the minimum,” he said. “We are going to continue to fight to ensure the democratic rights of our citizens are recognized and protected. We are going to continue to fight for our public education system in Arkansas.”