Griffin rejects 3rd version of ballot proposal on public funds for private schools

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin gives a speech in Little Rock in this Dec. 12, 2023 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)
Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin gives a speech in Little Rock in this Dec. 12, 2023 file photo. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Arkansas Attorney General Tim Griffin again rejected ballot wording Thursday for a proposed constitutional amendment to require private schools that receive government dollars to follow the same standards as public schools.

In his letter to Barry Jefferson -- president of For AR Kids, the group behind the effort -- Griffin's office said it rejected the proposal for containing ambiguous language that could mislead voters. It is the second time Griffin's office has rejected ballot language for the amendment.

If adopted by voters, the amendment would set minimum standards for education, guarantee universal pre-kindergarten and require private schools that accept state funds to follow the same rules as public schools.

In a news release, For AR Kids officials said they will resubmit a proposal to the attorney general's office while also considering whether to take legal action.

"We may consider litigation in the future if we feel there are irreconcilable differences between the AG's office and our goal of providing every Arkansas student the educational opportunities they deserve," according to the release.

The group's frustration stems from a meeting the group had with the attorney general's office before it submitted the third version of the ballot language, saying members thought they had left with a mutual understanding of what was required to get their amendment's wording approved. Instead, the attorney general's office found new issues in the proposal's wording that did not come up in the meeting or the prior rejection, Bill Kopsky, treasurer of For AR Kids, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

"It stretches their credibility when they wait until the last minute on the last day that they could possibly respond," Kopsky said. "And then they respond with objections to things that they've never raised even concerns about before. It just starts to, again, it starts to feel like it's a delay, delay, delay tactic."

The attorney general has 10 business days to complete its review of ballot language for a proposed amendment or initiated act. Typically, the attorney general's office waits until the 10th business day to issue its opinion on ballot language.

"This process of identifying and correcting misleading language requires painstaking legal work by both sponsors and my office," Griffin said in a statement to the Democrat-Gazette, responding to criticism from For AR Kids. "It can take time, especially when sponsors are attempting to make far-reaching changes to the Arkansas Constitution. The process demands rigor as it should. Anything less cheapens our Constitution and system of governing."

Citizen-initiated amendments require a brief summary, called a ballot title, that explains the proposal to voters. Under state law, the attorney general is required to certify the ballot title before the petition effort to get the amendment on the ballot can begin. If certified by the attorney general, to make the November ballot the amendment also will need a petition with at least 90,704 signatures, from among least 50 counties, turned into the secretary of state's office by July 5.

The proposed amendment would set new academic requirements, including:

* Students be taught communication skills; knowledge of economic, social and political systems; an understanding of governmental processes; and of the arts.

* For students to learn academic or vocational skills.

* Universal access to after-school and summer programs.

* Assistance to children within 200% of the federal poverty line.

* Additional support services for students with disabilities.

The attorney general's office said the ballot title for the education amendment could be misleading because of the use of the term "provision." If approved by voters, the amendment would expand the state's education responsibilities to include "the provision of efficient human, facility, material, and financial resources, and the means to achieve such objectives."

"You could be using the term to mean that the State is required to supply these resources for schools," the attorney general's office said. "Under that reading, the State would hire and pay teachers, the State would design and build school buildings, etc. Or you could be using the term to mean that the State would provide funding to the schools to obtain these resources for themselves."

The attorney general's office said it also found issue with the use of the term "tax benefits," as the amendment would require any school, public or private, that receives "any State or local tax benefits or tax credits," to follow state's standards for academics and accreditation.

"For example, is a school's non-profit status considered a 'State or local tax benefit'? If so, then the ballot title would need to note this fact lest the ballot title mislead by omission," the attorney general's office said.

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