Arkansas judge temporarily blocks state from enforcing education overhaul law

Ethan Walker, a Little Rock Central High School student, speaks at a rally of opponents of a new school voucher law on Wednesday, March 8, 2023, outside the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. (AP Photo/Andrew DeMillo)

An Arkansas judge on Friday temporarily blocked the state from enforcing Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ education overhaul, siding with opponents who argue legislators didn’t follow correct procedures to enact the law immediately.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herbert Wright issued the temporary restraining order in response to a lawsuit challenging a contract approved under the law for a charter school group to run an east Arkansas school district. Wright set a June 20 hearing on the lawsuit.

Opponents of the contract sought to block the move, saying the Legislature violated the Arkansas Constitution by not voting separately on the “emergency clause” that allows the law to take effect immediately. Without that clause, the law can’t take effect until later this summer. Wright ruled opponents were likely to

“The word ‘separate’ cannot mean ‘the same,’” Wright’s ruling said. ”In order to pass a valid and enforceable emergency clause, the Arkansas General Assembly was required by Article 5, Section 1 to hold a separate roll-call vote, and they failed to do so.”

The lawsuit was filed by opponents of the contract for the Friendship Education Foundation to run the Marvell-Elaine School District. The plaintiffs include a group trying to put a referendum on the ballot on the education law.

“I am thankful that Arkansas still has three independent branches or government and that the judicial branch still follows the Arkansas Constitution, even if the legislature does not,” Ali Noland, an attorney for plaintiffs in the case, said in an email. “Today’s ruling sent a clear message that neither the Arkansas General Assembly nor Governor Sarah Sanders are above the law.”

Republican Attorney General Tim Griffin filed a notice later Friday afternoon that state is appealing the order to the state Supreme Court.

“It is sad that the radical left is playing political games with children’s futures,” Sanders said in a statement. “We are focused on making sure that every kid in Arkansas has access to a quality education, teachers have the pay raises they deserve, and parents are empowered.”

Sanders, who took office in January, called the education law her top priority during this year’s legislative session. The law also phases in a school voucher program, raises minimum salaries for teachers for the 2023-2024 school year and prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms before 5th grade.

Arkansas lawmakers have for years voted on bills and emergency clauses at the same time, typically only voting on the emergency clause separately if the bill fails to garner the two-thirds vote needed for it to take effect immediately. The votes on the bill and the emergency clause are recorded separately in the House and Senate journals.

The attorney general’s office argued in a filing earlier Friday that finding that approach unconstitutional could create “chaos” for other laws that have been approved in a similar fashion.