A Republican supermajority is gleeful about the prospect of school privatization. Brian Chilson

Two groups led by insiders from Gov. Sarah Sanders’ inner circle have formed to oppose a citizen-led effort to put a pro-public schools amendment on the 2024 ballot.

The new group, which includes Sanders’ campaign manager and her public affairs director, will do battle with education advocates aiming to enshrine pre-K access and quality control for all schools receiving public money into the state constitution. The proposal, the Arkansas Educational Rights Amendment, would require private schools that accept public funding in the form of vouchers to meet the same minimum standards set for public schools.

Advertisement

The first team of Sanders operatives gunning to defeat ballot initiatives filed committee paperwork in March. Called Stronger Arkansas, the group opposes the educational rights amendment, along with other proposals to expand access to abortion and medical marijuana. The committee includes Cathy Lanier, treasurer for Sanders’ 2022 gubernatorial campaign and a newly appointed member of the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion Commission; Vicki Deere, mom of Sanders staffer Judd Deere; and Chris Caldwell, Sanders’ campaign manager.

The second group, Arkansans for Students and Educators, will focus solely on the education amendment. Arkansans for Students and Educators filed paperwork Monday. The filing says their goal is “the disqualification and/or defeat of the Arkansas Educational Rights Amendment of 2024.”

Advertisement

Mike Wickline at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported Monday that Jordan Powell, Sanders’ public affairs director, is leaving the governor’s team at the Capitol to work for Arkansans for Students and Educators. Caldwell is on this group, too, as is John Schmelzle, a Sanders appointee to the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

The group will be working to defeat the efforts of a coalition that includes the NAACP, the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, the Arkansas Education Association, the Arkansas Retired Teachers Association and Citizens First Congress.

Advertisement

That coalition, For AR Kids, is collecting signatures for the Arkansas Educational Rights Amendment throughout the spring and early summer. It would guarantee Arkansas students have access to pre-K, afterschool and summer programs. It would also establish minimum standards for all schools. The kicker, though, is the provision that would require private schools that accept vouchers to meet the same standards for curriculum and accreditation that are applied to public schools.

Private schools that accept taxpayer-funded vouchers would have to administer the same standardized tests and would no longer be able to turn students away based on disabilities, special education needs or moral codes. Plus, the public would have access to information on how the money is being spent.

Advertisement

Such requirements would be a disincentive for private schools to accept publicly funded vouchers as the law that created the state’s new voucher program, Arkansas LEARNS, takes full effect over the next two years. An earlier effort by CAPES (Citizens for Arkansas Public Education and Students) to repeal the far-reaching education law fell short in 2023.

While it’s not unheard of for a governor to speak out against an amendment — former Gov. Asa Hutchinson vocally opposed an unsuccessful marijuana amendment in 2022 — the multi-pronged efforts from Sanders’ staff and advisors to protect her signature Arkansas LEARNS Act are worth noting.

Advertisement

Sanders took up the rallying cry of “school choice” with Arkansas LEARNS, which will eventually allow any family in the state with a K-12 student to apply for a voucher to help cover private school tuition. In states with similar programs, the majority of vouchers have gone to families whose children were already in private schools or who would likely choose private schools even without the vouchers. Opponents of school vouchers point out that private schools don’t have to provide transportation or meals like public schools do, and they’re free to discriminate based on students’ abilities, religion and other criteria.

Arkansas’s supermajority Republican Legislature of 2023 was not dissuaded by these arguments, nor by warnings that a universal voucher system could gut the state education budget and defund traditional public schools. They quickly approved the Arkansas LEARNS Act, which took effect this school year.

Advertisement

Records with the Arkansas Ethics Commission show that it’s the Arkansas Abortion Amendment that’s attracting the most opposition of any of the ballot initiatives the attorney general cleared for signature gathering. The Family Council, the Catholic Diocese of Little Rock and other anti-abortion groups have organized to oppose it.

The Arkansas Abortion Amendment would prevent the state from restricting access to abortion up to 18 weeks after fertilization or in the instance of rape or incest, fatal fetal anomaly, or when abortion is needed to protect the pregnant woman’s life or physical health.