Arkansas Supreme Court overturns lower court, clears path for LEARNS Act to go into effect again

High court clears the way for applying education law

Secretary of education Jacob Oliva talks to the press during a signing ceremony for the LEARNS act in the second floor rotunda of the State Capitol on Wednesday, March 8, 2023...(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
Secretary of education Jacob Oliva talks to the press during a signing ceremony for the LEARNS act in the second floor rotunda of the State Capitol on Wednesday, March 8, 2023...(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

The Arkansas Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling Thursday, clearing the way for the LEARNS Act to again go into effect as the case remains mired in a legal fight.

The 5-2 ruling reverses an order blocking the LEARNS Act from taking effect and remanding the case back to Pulaski County Circuit Court, where both sides await a hearing scheduled for Tuesday. The court's ruling touched only on the issue of whether the lower court erred when issuing a temporary restraining order that blocked the education law from taking effect, not on the underlying merits of the case.

Filed May 8 in Pulaski County, the lawsuit seeks to bar the state from enforcing the education law until Aug. 1 and argues lawmakers erred when passing the legislation's emergency clause, a procedure that allows laws to immediately take effect if approved by two-thirds of legislators in both chambers.

The LEARNS Act was Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' top legislative priority, with the Republican governor arguing public education in the state was in need of sweeping changes. The 145-page law advanced by Sanders and by Republican legislators in the GOP-dominated General Assembly sets higher minimum salaries for teachers, allocates state funding for students to attend a private or home school, bans the teaching of critical race theory, increases literacy standards for elementary students and requires revamped guidelines for school safety.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herbert Wright issued a temporary restraining order May 26 that blocked the state from enforcing the LEARNS Act while the case makes its way through the legal process. That decision prompted an emergency appeal from Attorney General Tim Griffin to the Arkansas Supreme Court, arguing Wright's ruling would sow chaos not only for the LEARNS Act but also for dozens of other laws passed in a similar fashion.

Writing for the majority, Justice Courtney Hudson held the plaintiffs failed to show "irreparable harm" that proves they need an order blocking the LEARNS Act while the lawsuit is being litigated. Temporary restraining orders are short-term rulings that can stop a law from taking effect while it is being challenged in court.

[DOCUMENT: Read the ruling reversing the court order » arkansasonline.com/616learnsact/]


Hudson wrote those kinds of orders are "an extraordinary right reserved for extraordinary circumstances," and Wright's ruling did not meet that threshold. Hudson was joined by Justices Karen Baker, Rhonda Wood, Shawn Womack and Barbara Webb, with Justices Dan Kemp and Robin Wynne dissenting.

The lawsuit, brought by a group of parents and grandparents of students in Phillips County and two public education advocates, was filed after the state Board of Education used the LEARNS Act to approve a takeover of the Marvell-Elaine School District by a charter school. The unanimous vote in May by the board of education allows the Friendship Education Foundation, a D.C.-based charter school nonprofit, to run the struggling school district.

Thursday's ruling means the contract between the Marvell-Elaine School District and Friendship Education Foundation is back into effect for now, with the Department of Education tweeting it "will immediately resume efforts to implement the most bold, comprehensive education reform law in the nation."

Ali Noland, attorney for the plaintiffs, called Thursday's ruling "a temporary setback" but said it won't prevent her side from eventually prevailing in the case. In court documents, Noland argued the temporary restraining order was necessary to prevent the contract between the Friendship Education Foundation and the Marvell-Elaine School District from taking place before the school year, claiming the agreement would lead to teachers being laid off.

"While the Plaintiffs are understandably frustrated that today's ruling diminishes the severity of the harm caused by the State's unconstitutional actions, the Plaintiffs remain confident that they will prevail in the end," Noland said in a statement.

Noland also argued the General Assembly used faulty reasoning to justify the emergency act, saying lawmakers overstepped their constitutional authority by using the procedure. In the complaint, the plaintiffs said the Board of Education could not begin using the LEARNS Act until Aug.1 and asked for an immediate order from the court blocking the takeover.

For her part, Sanders has said the lawsuit is sour grapes by activists who are looking for another way to defeat her bill after they failed to do so in the Legislature.

"Today's Supreme Court decision is a huge win for parents, teachers, and most importantly -- our kids," Sanders tweeted after the decision came out Thursday. "I've spoken with Education Secretary Oliva -- he is immediately getting back to implementing the boldest, most transformational education reform in the country. For those playing political games with our children's future, we will fight, and we will win."

The dispute is over Article 5, Section 1, of the Arkansas Constitution which requires the General Assembly to hold a "separate roll call" vote for emergency clauses. Without an emergency clause, laws do not come into effect until 91 days after the legislative session ends.

When the LEARNS Act came to a vote, House Speaker Matthew Shepherd and Lt. Gov. Leslie Rutledge, who presides over the Senate, told lawmakers their one vote was for the bill and the emergency clause, a normal procedure that Republican and Democratically controlled legislatures have used for decades in Arkansas.

Plaintiffs argued by holding a simultaneous vote for the LEARNS Act and its emergency clause, the General Assembly failed to follow the procedure set out in the constitution that calls for separate votes and that the state would have to wait until Aug. 1 to begin enforcing the LEARNS Act.

In court filings, the attorney general's office argued lawmakers have the prerogative in how they establish their own procedures and required their votes for the LEARNS Act and its emergency clause separately in the official journals, a practice the General Assembly has used for decades. Griffin and his staff argued that how the General Assembly conducts its business is a political question with which the courts should not interfere.

"This is a win for Arkansas' children, their parents and teachers. Marvell-Elaine will be able to welcome back students next year," Griffin said in a statement. "And the Arkansas Department of Education can immediately resume planning to provide teachers higher salaries and maternity leave, make schools safer for our children, and enable the most vulnerable children to obtain the education they deserve."

DISSENT AND CONCURRENCE

Thursday's ruling is not likely to be the last time the Supreme Court will see this case after remanding it back to Pulaski County Circuit Court. Wright said in his May 26 ruling that plaintiffs are likely to prevail in the case, indicating how he might rule after the June 20 hearing.

Wright's final ruling will likely prompt another appeal to the Supreme Court, which will likely take a wider look at the case. Thursday's ruling indicates how the seven justices on the court viewed some of the claims in the case with a dissent authored by Kemp agreeing with Wright's order, writing "the General Assembly did not substantially comply with the requirements set forth in article 5, section 1 of the Arkansas Constitution" when approving the LEARNS Act's emergency clause.

When it came to the issue of "irreparable harm," which Wright used to justify his restraining order, Kemp did not weigh in. Wright based his temporary restraining order on the idea that the plaintiffs' case against the state would likely prevail, something that Hudson did not address in the majority opinion.

For their part, Baker, Wood, Webb and Womack each wrote opinions concurring with the majority ruling. Womack wrote sovereign immunity -- the concept that the state cannot be sued in some circumstances -- "bars nearly the entirety of the appellees' lawsuit." Wood wrote in her concurrence that the plaintiffs would likely fail on the merits in the case because the court "cannot usurp the legislative branch's core function."

But since the majority opinion did not address sovereign immunity or the merits of the case, it "does not impact the Plaintiffs' ability to prevail on the merits of their case at the final hearing on Tuesday," Noland said.

IMPLICATIONS

Two of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Veronica McClane and Steve Grappe, are hoping the litigation will help put a long pause on the LEARNS Act as they lead a campaign to put the issue to the voters. McClane and Grappe lead Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students (CAPES), which is attempting to put the education law to a referendum.

If the group is successful in getting the signatures it needs to get it on the ballot, the LEARNS Act could be held in "abeyance," meaning the state would be prohibited from enforcing it until after the 2024 election. But the law would only be put on pause for that long if two things happen: If courts rule the law cannot take effect until Aug. 1, and if CAPES is able to get the roughly 54,000 signatures needed for its petition.

"Obviously, we are not in agreement with the court's opinion that there is 'no irreparable harm' to the Marvell-Elaine School District and its employees who were terminated, and to CAPES," McClane said in a statement. "However, we look forward to the hearing on June 20 which we believe will reaffirm our position."

The attorney general's office has argued a court order banning the state from enforcing the LEARNS Act would have implications that go beyond the education law since legislators approved dozens of laws using the same procedure for the LEARNS Act.

Griffin's office argued the Supreme Court must rule in favor of the state, saying a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs would "sow chaos," adding that everything from the state's budgets to recent criminal justice laws would be put in jeopardy.


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