LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – A group of Arkansans are hoping to put the future of the new LEARNS Act into the hands of voters.
Steve Grappe is the Executive Director of a newly formed organization called Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students (CAPES). The group was put together just two days after Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed the education bill into law.
“We know that the LEARNS Act is bad, and we want to get rid of it,” Grappe said. “Nobody wants this.”
Members of CAPES are hoping to repeal the LEARNS Act through a referendum, which would put the fate of the law into the hands of voters.
First, a petition would need enough signatures to go on a ballot. The state constitution allows citizens to repeal a law through a petition, so long as the number of signatures is at least 6% of the voters from the most recent gubernatorial election. Grappe said that adds up to about 55,000 signatures.
Grappe said he has held town hall meetings since the LEARNS Act came about to get a gauge on Arkansans thoughts. He said he saw overwhelming opposition to it, especially in rural communities.
Concerns stem from the voucher program that would use state funds to allow public school students to attend private or charter schools instead, in addition to repealing the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, and eventually requiring 75 hours of community service of high school students to graduate.
Grappe said he fully expects to see this issue on the November 2024 ballot.
“I have a feeling the people of Arkansas are going to send this thing home,” Grappe said.
Grappe said in rural towns, this would hurt small public schools, the teachers and administrators there, and make it harder for working students to graduate.
“The things that are going to happen as a byproduct of this bill are going to literally wipe out whole communities,” he said.
In a press conference Wednesday while signing separate legislation, Sanders responded to a question about the group’s efforts to repeal the law, saying she could not be prouder of the state passing the most comprehensive, historic education legislation.
“I am extremely excited about what LEARNS means for the long-term impact of our state,” Sanders said. “I think it is going to bring transformational change, and I do not think it’s going anywhere.”
Sanders added that there are several aspects of this law Arkansans should be proud of.
“We went from the very bottom in teacher pay to the top five overnight,” she said. “We are empowering parents to make the best decisions about how and where their kids are educated. We are putting the resources and the training into the hands of our teachers.”
Grappe said CAPES filed a statement of organization with the Arkansas Ethics Commission and submitted their ballot title to Attorney General Tim Griffin’s office on Monday. If the ballot title is approved, the group will start gathering signatures to get their referendum on the ballot.
The attorney general has 10 business days to review the title of the petition and either approve it or send it back. Grappe said he is hopeful if the attorney general returns it, he will suggest changes they can make to bring it back for approval.