Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students (CAPES) submitted signatures to place a veto referendum on the Nov. 2024 ballot to repeal the LEARNS Act, an education bill signed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R).
CAPES turned in signatures on July 31 and said they expected to be about 500 signatures short of the requirement. To qualify for the ballot, 54,422 valid signatures are needed from 50 of Arkansas’ 75 counties. Arkansas allows for a cure period of 30 days to collect additional signatures if 75% of the submitted signatures are determined to be valid.
CAPES Executive Director Steve Grappe said, “We might have counted wrong, so we’re going to let the Secretary of State do due diligence because everyone in Arkansas deserves to have their signature to tell the government that they think this should be on the ballot.”
The 145-page LEARNS Act 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.
Grappe said, “To the Legislature that passed this piece of trash, we are coming for them and we are not going to stop until we fix our education system, we get the resources that our teachers need, we get the facilities that the kids need and we give them a world-class education, but we do it the right way.”
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R), responded to the veto referendum effort, saying, “I am extremely excited about what LEARNS means for the long-term impact of our state. I think it is going to bring transformational change, and I do not think it’s going anywhere.”
The group began collecting signatures on June 5, when Attorney General Tim Griffin (R) approved the referendum’s ballot language. The ballot title contains 8,154 words and spans 16 pages. Griffin noted it was the longest ballot title in Arkansas history.
Since 1934, nine veto referendums have appeared on the ballot in Arkansas. In all but one case, the referendum effort resulted in the targeted law being repealed.