Arkansas Supreme Court lifts order blocking governor’s education overhaul

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)

The Arkansas Supreme Court on Thursday lifted a judge’s ruling that temporarily blocked the state from enforcing Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ education overhaul as the legal challenge continues.

In their 5-2 ruling, the court’s majority said the law’s opponents failed to prove the “irreparable harm” that would be caused if the law remained in effect. The plan creates a new school voucher program, raises minimum teacher salaries and places restrictions on classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity before 5th grade.

The justices stopped short of addressing the argument by the law’s opponents that the Legislature didn’t follow correct procedures for the measure to take effect immediately.

“Today’s Supreme Court decision is a huge win for parents, teachers, and most importantly – our kids,” Sanders said in a statement.

The law is being challenged by opponents of a contract approved under the law for a charter school group to run an east Arkansas school district. A hearing is set for Tuesday before the Pulaski County judge who issued the temporary order last month.

“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,” Ali Noland, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement.

Sanders, a Republican who took office in January, called the law her top priority during this year’s legislative session.

Republican Attorney General Tim Griffin said that because of Thursday’s ruling state education officials “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.”

Opponents of the contract have argued the 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 wouldn’t take effect until Aug. 1.

Though they sidestepped that issue, members of the court’s majority signaled they’re unlikely to support blocking the law if the case comes back. In separate opinions, three of the court’s justices said ruling on whether the Legislature followed the correct procedures would overstep their authority.

“The only way to decide this issue would be to pass judgment on the legislative branch’s internal procedural method of recording votes,” Justice Rhonda Wood wrote. “This is not our role.”

A fourth justice cited a 2018 ruling by the court that has limited lawsuits against the state.

The two justices who dissented said they agreed with the Pulaski County judge that opponents had shown they were likely to succeed with their claims.