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Arkansas Supreme Court Unblocks School Voucher Program

The Court found opponents of the Arkansas LEARNS program failed to prove it would cause 'irreparable harm'

The Supreme Court of Arkansas reversed a lower court’s decision to block a school voucher program, marking the latest development in a legal battle over the expansion of school choice legislation.

The voucher program was championed by Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a Republican.

The Court found 5-2 that opponents of the program did not prove “irreparable harm” would be caused by its enactment. 

“We have repeatedly held that harm is normally considered irreparable only when it cannot be adequately compensated by money damages or redressed in a court of law,” stated the majority opinion. “Appellees’ claims regarding the expenditure of funds under the transformation contract are clearly monetary in nature and are therefore not considered irreparable.”

The program was passed by the Arkansas legislature in March following a 26-8 vote in the state Senate after a 78-21 vote in the House. The bill establishing the program also “puts new restrictions on classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity,” raises the minimum teacher salary by 39% to $50,000, and will cost an estimated $640 million during its first two years, per 2 Houston.

“Today’s final passage of the biggest, boldest, most conservative education reforms in America makes Arkansas a blueprint for the country. Arkansas LEARNS will raise teacher pay, empower parents, and give our students the skills to succeed in life. These changes can’t come soon enough,” Sanders said in a statement on March 17. “I’m deeply grateful for the legislators who worked around the clock to pass Arkansas LEARNS by massive margins. … I’m ready to sign it into law tomorrow and end the failed status quo that has governed our education system for far too long.”

“Every kid should have access to a quality education and a path to a good paying job and better life right here in Arkansas,” the governor concluded.

The program would be released in phases over the course of three years. Parents would be given access to “education freedom accounts” for each of their students to cover the costs of private or homeschooling. The accounts would receive 90% of the per-student funding typically provided by the state to public schools, an estimated $7,413. 

Opponents of the program say the school-choice initiative will divert funding and resources away from public schools, which in turn could create long-term challenges. There are also complaints about “the measure for eliminating the state-mandated salary schedule that sets pay ranges based on years of service and education” which some believe will “punish veteran teachers,” per AP News.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herbert Wright issued a temporary restraining order in May preventing the voucher program from being enacted. Attorney General Tim Griffin, a Republican, appealed to the Supreme Court. 

“It is sad that the radical left is playing political games with children’s futures,” Sanders said in a statement at the time. “We are focused on making sure that every kid in Arkansas has access to a quality education, teachers have the pay raises they deserve, and parents are empowered.”

School voucher programs have been established in Arizona and West Virginia.

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