Language for veto referendum challenging the LEARNS Act is the longest ballot title in Arkansas history

Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students (CAPES) began filing ballot language for a proposed veto referendum with the Arkansas attorney general in May after the Arkansas State Legislature adjourned its 2023 legislative session. After two previous attempts were rejected, Attorney General Tim Griffin certified the ballot language submitted by CAPES. The ballot title contains 8,154 words and spans 16 pages. Griffin noted it was the longest ballot title in Arkansas history.

CAPES is seeking to place a veto referendum on the November 2024 ballot to repeal the LEARNS Act, an education bill supported by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R). The 145-page bill was designed to make various changes to education in the state. The acronym, LEARNS, stands for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking, and school safety. Changes made by the bill include:

  • creating the Arkansas Children’s Educational Freedom Account Program, which is designed to allow parents or legal guardians of students to opt-out of public schools, receive 90% of what the state would have funded the district for the student, and spend the funds on private school tuition or other eligible education expenses;
  • raising the minimum salary for teachers from $36,000 to $50,000;
  • requiring the Department of Education to review materials that would, according to the bill, “indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory,” and other materials that would be defined as prohibited indoctrination;
  • prohibiting sexual education before fifth grade;
  • expanding high-speed internet access;
  • expanding career exploration in schools;
  • repealing the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, which required school districts to notify teachers of dismissal before May 1 of each year.

In Arkansas, sponsors of proposed ballot measures must submit their ballot language to the attorney general, who examines the popular name and ballot title to ensure it complies with state law as interpreted by the state supreme court. The attorney general must certify the ballot language before proponents collect signatures. The attorney general can reject proposed ballot language if it is determined to be misleading. Ballot language must “accurately and impartially summarize the provisions of the law voters will be asked to approve or reject” and must be worded so that the outcome of a “yes” and “no” vote is clear.

Attorney General Tim Griffin rejected the first proposal. He wrote in his Apr. 24 rejection letter to sponsors, “While I understand that it is challenging to summarize a 145-page act, your proposed summaries are more like descriptive labels for some of the act’s component parts,” and there is “no summary of several provisions.”

The second proposal was rejected on May 11. Griffin wrote, “In response to your first submission, I noted that you had attempted to summarize six pages of new school-safety provisions with the vague phrase ‘add additional school safety requirements.’ You have attempted to resolve this with the following revision: ‘(g) Existing school safety requirements are expanded to include assessments instead of audits, collaborate with medical professionals and fire departments in planning for lockdown drills, require safety expert reviews of new school architectural plans, require mental health support, increase the presence of uniformed law enforcement, and require district safety and security teams.’” Griffin said, “In my own review of the school-safety provisions, there are roughly 17 specific additions to the law regarding school safety. While perhaps not every such addition needs to be summarized in the ballot title, your attempted summary continues to be more of a descriptive label rather than a summary.”

Griffin certified the ballot language submitted by CAPES on their third attempt on June 5. The ballot title contains 8,154 words and spans 16 pages. In his certification letter, Griffin wrote, “Now, in your third submission, your ballot title essentially cuts and pastes from nearly every section of the LEARNS Act. Therefore, I cannot conclude that it is misleading.” He noted that the state Supreme Court has previously held that “it is possible for the underlying measure to be ‘so expansive that it precludes the writing of an acceptable ballot title,’” and that this can occur “when the underlying measure to be summarized is so all-encompassing that to include every important factor of the proposal in the ballot title would cause the ballot title to be so complex, detailed, and lengthy that the Arkansas voter could not intelligently make a choice on the title within [what was at the time] the five minutes allowed in the voting booth.”

Currently, in Arkansas, voters may be in the voting booth for a maximum of 10 minutes. Before the Nov. 2022 election, a spokesperson for the Arkansas secretary of state told 40/29 News that they were “unaware of anyone ever not being allowed to cast their ballot due to the law limiting a voter’s time inside the voting booth” and “the Secretary of State’s office does not believe the law should mean that a person should be unable to vote if it takes them more than 10 minutes.”

The length of ballot titles that the state Supreme Court previously considered to be too complex and lengthy, and therefore declared them to be insufficient, ranged from 500 to 727 words. The ballot title for CAPES’ referendum is about 1,022% longer.

CAPES said, “The LEARNS Act would prioritize spending at least $350 million per year over the first three years and billions of dollars over decades to startup education businesses in the form of charter and private schools that have a higher failure rate, greater turnover, and fewer requirements than public school districts; lower bars for teacher qualification; less spending per child on nutrition, transportation, extracurriculars or advanced placement, special needs, and a litany of other services that makes public schools a bedrock of support for hardworking Arkansas families. … The funding for the LEARNS Act comes directly from the budgets of public school districts into the pockets of private educational companies through the school voucher program.”

Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) said, “Education is the foundation for success, and, with Secretary of Education and Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, Jacob Oliva, we are ready to transform Arkansas education with bold reforms that will empower every kid to succeed. Jacob’s proven success increasing student achievement and his experience serving in many educational roles will make him an asset to my administration. Through my Arkansas L.E.A.R.N.S. plan, we will expand access to quality education for every kid growing up in our state, empower parents, not government bureaucrats, and prepare students for the workforce, not government dependency, so everyone has a shot at a better life right here in Arkansas.”

In May, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herbert Wright stopped the law from taking effect immediately after finding that the emergency clause (a clause in the bill declaring an emergency and requiring the law to take effect immediately, rather than 90 days after the legislature adjourned) was not voted on separately from the bill, rendering it invalid. Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin appealed the order to the Arkansas Supreme Court. On June 15, 2023, the Arkansas Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s order, allowing the law to take effect.

To qualify for the 2024 ballot, sponsors must submit 54,422 valid signatures by July 30.

Since 1934, 10 veto referendums have appeared on the ballot in Arkansas. In all but one case, the referendum effort resulted in the targeted law being repealed.