In a two-page order Friday afternoon, the Arkansas Supreme Court denied the state’s request for an emergency stay of a temporary restraining order that has blocked implementation of Governor Sarah Sanders’ marquee K-12 school overhaul, Arkansas LEARNS.
The ruling means LEARNS, which has been on ice for the past week due to a Pulaski County circuit judge’s ruling last Friday, is still not in effect for the time being.
The court also granted a request from the Marvell-Elaine School District — which was taken over by the state in April and is currently controlled by state Education Secretary Jacob Oliva — for an expedited briefing schedule. Briefs are due from both sides in the lawsuit on Tuesday at 9 a.m., with reply briefs due the following morning.
The seven-member court was split, with justices Rhonda Wood, Barbara Webb and Shawn Womack saying they would have granted the state’s motion for a stay.
The lawsuit challenging LEARNS was filed on May 8 by attorney Ali Noland, who represents a group of plaintiffs that includes Marvell-Elaine school employees and community members, along with a public education advocacy group. The plaintiffs objected to the state’s plans to hand management of the district to a charter school organization, the Friendship Education Foundation, as permitted under LEARNS.
In addition to easing the path to charter school takeovers, the new law makes a raft of other changes to education policy, including a major boost to starting teacher salaries, an erosion of labor protections for teachers, and a universal voucher program that would direct public school funds towards private, parochial and home school students.
The lawsuit itself centers on a procedural matter, however: The plaintiffs argue that LEARNS should not take effect until later this year because the legislature improperly voted on an emergency clause attached to the bill. With an emergency clause, legislation goes into effect as soon as it’s signed by the governor; without one, it typically takes 90 days after adjournment of the legislature.
The state Constitution says both the House and Senate must vote on a bill separately from its emergency clause, though in practice the legislature has often voted on both at the same time.
Last week, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herbert Wright granted a temporary restraining order that enjoined implementation of LEARNS and set a June 20 date to hear arguments on the issue of the emergency clause vote. Attorney General Tim Griffin’s office appealed to the Supreme Court on Tuesday, asking the justices to undo the restraining order immediately.
The Court declined to do so, although the expedited schedule established in today’s order may set the stage for the issue to be resolved before the June 20 date earlier set by Judge Wright.
In addition to the split decision on lifting the restraining order, the justices also disagreed on what subjects will be briefed next week. Justices Wood, Webb and Womack wanted the parties to discuss “whether the case presents a nonjusticiable political question that violates separation of powers.” Separately, Womack and Webb would have requested parties weigh in on whether sovereign immunity would prevent the lawsuit from being filed in the first place.
Noland said in a statement that the plaintiffs were “heartened” by the Supreme Court’s order. “We look forward to briefing the additional legal issues requested by the court, and we are grateful that the Arkansas judiciary is still strongly committed to upholding the rule of law,” she said.
Griffin said he was “disappointed that the Arkansas Supreme Court declined to immediately block the circuit court’s order” but was pleased by the accelerated briefing schedule. He expressed optimism that the Court would resolve the entire case by next week.