Arkansas LEARNS Act repeal group adds more petition drives, intimidation hotline

More than 54,000 signatures must be submitted by July 31
( Courtesy, Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students)

The group behind a ballot referendum to repeal the LEARNS Act is organizing more petition-gathering events ahead of Monday’s signature submission deadline. 

Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students also on Wednesday launched a hotline where people can report if they’ve experienced intimidation for participating in the petition process.

CAPES needs to collect more than 54,000 signatures to place a repeal of the governor’s signature education law on the ballot in 2024. More than 30,000 signatures have been reported to CAPES executive director Steve Grappe, but he said there are more that have been collected but not yet submitted.

“I’m feeling optimistic,” he said. “I know that this is going to be a nail-biter.”

Grappe said he’s “excited to see people coming out of the woodworks” to participate in the grassroots campaign, but he said some have reported they’ve been warned of repercussions for their participation.

Teachers have been told not to sign the petition and are afraid they’ll get fired because the LEARNS Actrepealed the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, he said. Others, Grappe said, have said they’re concerned their company will lose their state contracts because the governor’s office will be checking to see if employees signed the petition. 

Grappe said he’s been in contact with the American Civil Liberties Union and Arkansans can report intimidation to CAPES’ new hotline by calling 888-320-3329. 

Since launching its repeal effort in April, CAPES has faced an uphill battle in placing repeal of the LEARNS Act before voters. The group’s proposed ballot title was rejected twice before Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin approved it in June.

Arkansas’ Constitution allows citizens to, by petition, order the referendum against an act passed by the General Assembly. Petitioners must gather signatures from 6% percent of the total votes cast for governor of the preceding general election, or just more than 54,000 signatures this cycle.

Act 236 of 2023 increased the requirement to gather signatures from 15 counties to 50 counties. The law also requires signatures from 3% of voters in each county. Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, and the League of Women voters filed a lawsuit against the law, arguing it’s unconstitutional. The attorney general’s office filed a motion to dismiss the case in May and the judge’s ruling is pending.

As of Wednesday, Grappe said they’ve met Act 236’s requirements in more than 30 counties and another 29 counties are within 100 signatures of meeting the threshold.

“The counties are in the bag,” Grappe said.

In Washington County, Olive Loom, a Fayetteville-based sewing business, is serving as one hub for CAPES signature gathering this week. During the lunch hour Wednesday, a steady stream of people visited the business to sign the petition and drop off collected signatures. 

Retired art teacher Gretchen Wilkes retrieved petitions so she could canvass her neighborhood. Wilkes said the LEARNS Act is one reason she retired in May after spending 38 years in the classroom.

“It’s going to be a nightmare…there’s nothing good about it and I don’t know a teacher who thinks that there is,” she said.

The LEARNS Act increases the state minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000, and Wilkes said smaller school districts will struggle to pay the new minimum. Arkansas Department of Education officials said the state will cover the cost needed to help districts reach the new minimum. 

The new education law also eliminated a statewide minimum salary schedule. School districts must develop a salary schedule to receive state funding to assist with teacher raises, but without a minimum salary schedule, Wilkes said there will be little difference in pay for first-year teachers and veteran teachers. 

“I think Arkansas needed some reform in education, but this is not it,” she said. “It was poorly thought out by people outside the state with no input from teachers or administrators.”

One of the issues the LEARNS Act aims to address is literacy. The new law requires holding back students who can’t read on grade level by third grade. That’s concerning to Anna Salzer who stopped by Olive Loom Wednesday to sign the petition. 

As a psychologist in the Rogers School District who deals with testing, Salzer said she knows a lot about reading and retention, and said retaining a student can have negative effects.

“The kids that get retained have worse outcomes, more likely to drop out, just worse outcomes,” she said. “So we’re going to do this in our state for all our kids? Why? Why? Did they ask anyone who had really done any research ever about that before they decided to make it a law for our state?”

Salzer said many questions remain about this provision, including how to measure grade level proficiency and how many students would be retained.  

“It really looks very strongly like retention for not being on grade level is a really bad idea…I hope we can make it not happen,” she said.

CAPES representatives plan to deliver signatures to the Secretary of State’s office for approval on Monday. Petition drives are planned through Sunday in more than 30 counties. Details about each event are available on CAPES’ website.

This story first appeared in Arkansas Advocate and is being republished through a Creative Commons License. See the original story here.


Arkansas Advocate is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado for questions: [email protected]. Follow Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.