May 16, 2024 - Education

Exclusive: Group plans initiative opposing proposed education amendment

Illustration of an eaten apple with a skin made of a dollar bill

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Opportunity Arkansas, a Conway-based advocacy and research organization, says it has formed an initiative and is prepared to spend "in excess of six figures" to educate Arkansans on the potential implications of a proposed amendment.

State of play: If voters approve, the Arkansas Educational Rights Amendment of 2024 would deny state or local money to any nonpublic school that fails to meet the same standards or assessment requirements as public schools.

It would also establish state-funded, voluntary childhood education, after-school and summer programs for all kids, starting at age 3.

  • Additionally, the amendment would require the state to assist children who are within 200% of the federal poverty line and to cover services that "fully meet the individualized needs of students with disabilities to allow them meaningful access to integrated education."

Context: The LEARNS Act of 2023 includes a measure to phase in a voucher system that will allow all parents to apply to use state funds to the school of their choice, including private schools and home-schooling programs.

What they're saying: "This is about cementing a blank check into our state constitution," Opportunity Arkansas founder and CEO Nic Horton told Axios, referring to the Educational Rights Amendment.

  • The amendment requires the state to establish new welfare programs without providing for a funding mechanism or cost estimate, he said.
  • The mandate to help children within double the poverty line aims to help them "achieve an adequate education and overcome the negative impact of poverty on education." But, Horton said, "We don't really know what that means and have no idea how much it's going to cost."

Between the lines: Private schools are unlikely to opt into the voucher program if they are required to meet the same standards as public schools. Those rules are not designed for private institutions, Horton said.

  • Opportunity Arkansas claims the amendment raises concerns about private schools' religious liberties. Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin rejected an earlier draft of the amendment, saying it would prevent schools from including religious instruction in violation of their First Amendment rights.

The other side: "Certainly, private schools, we agree, have First Amendment rights to teach whatever they would like," Bill Kopsky of For AR Kids, the group collecting signatures to put the Educational Rights Amendment on the ballot, told the Arkansas Advocate earlier this year.

  • "What they don't have the right to do is use state funding to teach a different set of standards than are required of any other school receiving state funding."

What's next: Opportunity Arkansas is assembling a coalition of like-minded groups like The Reform Alliance and Arkansas Learns (not to be confused with the LEARNS Act) that will launch a social media campaign and host town hall meetings.

  • The group is not going as far as a "decline to sign" campaign but does want to ensure Arkansans understand what they're deciding to sign or not sign, Horton said.
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