Referendum effort on Arkansas education overhaul fails to qualify for ballot

Volunteers with Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students (CAPES) work at a petition drive in Bella Vista on July 30, 2023. (CAPES)

An effort to ask voters to repeal Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ education overhaul has failed to qualify for next year’s ballot, state election officials said Friday.

Secretary of State John Thurston said supporters of the proposed referendum on the education law fell short of the 54,442 signatures from registered voters required to qualify. Thurston wrote in a letter to Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students that the group had submitted 53,444 signatures backing the referendum plan.

Sanders, a Republican who took office in January, signed the education law in March. Formally known as the LEARNS Act — short for literacy, empowerment, accountability, readiness, networking and school safety — the measure was her top agenda item in this year’s legislative session.

The law creates a new school voucher program, raises minimum teacher salaries and prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in classrooms before fifth grade.

CAPES said it was disappointed and had faced obstacles, including an abbreviated timeline to circulate petitions. The group also cited a new state law that’s being challenged in court that increased the number of counties where they had to gather a minimum number of signatures.

“We are going to continue to fight to ensure the democratic rights of our citizens are recognized and protected,” CAPES Executive Director Steve Grappe said in a statement. “We are going to continue to fight for our public education system in Arkansas.”

Sanders criticized the unsuccessful effort to get the referendum on the ballot.

“Self-serving partisan extremists tried to play political games to undermine LEARNS, overturn the will of the voters, and hold our kids back,” she said in a statement. “Today it’s official: they failed, Arkansas’ students won, and my administration will continue to raise teacher pay, invest in literacy, and empower parents and students through LEARNS.”