Petition drive for Educational Rights Amendment makes stop in Hope Tuesday
Above: Attendees listen to speakers at a meeting and petition signing session in support of the Education Rights Amendment of 2024. The meeting took place Tuesday evening at Northside Park's Washington-Douglas Community Center in Hope.

The petition drive for the Educational Rights Amendment of 2024 came to Hope Tuesday evening as Arkansas Education Association President April Reisma spoke to about two dozen attendees at a meeting at Northside Park’s Washington-Douglas Community Center. 

First to speak was Deronda Williams who is in Concerned Citizens of Prescott, Co-chair of the education caucus of the Citizens First Congress and is a seven-year veteran of Arkansas’ pre-school program. She said she favored the amendment since it would protect and improve pre-school, summer school and special education. About pre-school, she said, “I've seen the growth. I continue to see the growth, because I still continue to follow the preschoolers that I had in preschool all the way up until eighth grade. I just last week got some information on two of my students that had made the honor roll, reading on a top level from the time they went to kindergarten up until the eighth grade. So that was really exciting to me.” 

She then introduced Reisma, who was a Special Education teacher at Joe T. Robinson Middle School when she was chosen AEA president, began by explaining that the Education Rights Amendment is one of six petition efforts in the state. 

After the passage and signing of the LEARNS Act, Reisma said, and the failure of the petition drive to repeal that act, efforts were undertaken by the AEA and other entities toward passing the Educational Rights Amendment by petitioning for it to appear on the November 5th ballot. “We had 15 lawyers working on the wording along with us, so we're part of the authoring of it,” Reisma said. 

In December of 2023, the group established wording of the amendment, submitting it to Attorney General Tim Griffin who had two weeks in which to approve the wording. Reisma said he took every day of the two weeks to turn down the wording. “We went through that two-week process a total of four times. Finally, on March 1, we were granted the ability to have our wording approved, and to start collecting signatures,” Reisma said. 

Among the organizations, in addition to AEA, working to get signatures for the petition drive are the state NAACP, Arkansas Public Policy Panel, Citizens First Congress, Arkansas Retired Teachers Association and Stand Up Arkansas, Reisma said. 

“We want to instill in the Constitution proven things that help students learn.” Reisma said these include Pre-Kindergarten, which for every dollar invested returns nine because it reduces the incidence of school drop-out and incarceration and increases the chances of students “going on to be a well-rounded citizen” and finding gainful employment that contributes to the tax base.  

Next, the amendment requires that Arkansas provide special education to students who need it. “Obviously, I'm a special ed teacher, so I care about that quality special education. … They need to be taken care of. They're not less than at all. They're still human beings, just like every other child in that classroom,” Reisma said. 

Another inclusion in the amendment is the requirement that the state provide services for students from households with low incomes and those who may have additional needs. “A common term that they use for those wraparound services is called community schools. And this is something that I've gotten more involved with in during my presidency. I've gone and seen community schools in Michigan, but I've also seen them right here in Arkansas,” Reisma said, referring to schools in Little Rock and Batesville. 

Reisma referred to her tour of a school in Michigan where she saw an example of such services. “We rounded the corner into the teachers work room, and I found a kid getting his tooth worked on by a dentist. That kid had a sore tooth, and instead of sending that kid home where the parents could not afford to take him to the dentist or waiting for a dental appointment, they made a phone call to a local dentist who actually brought his things into the school.” Reisma also cited a school in the Pulaski Special School District getting a clinic on campus. 

Reisma emphasized that such services are needed if students are to excel in education: “One thing is for sure, a child can't learn, a teacher can't teach, a para[professional] can't help if [students] are hungry, if they are sick, if they are dirty, if they need clothes.” These services, Reisma said, are also needed for the use of teachers and staff. 

The amendment also calls for the state to provide summer and after school programs. Summer school helps prevent the loss of skills while the standard school year is not in session. After school services allow students refreshers on what they did not quite understand during the class day but affords other benefits, too. “Maybe they want to learn something new, like how to play the guitar or something, and or have fun with their friends in a safe environment where they don't have to worry about who's selling what in the park,” Reisma said. 

The amendment also requires that the same educational standards enforced in public schools be adhered to by private schools that receive taxpayer funds. “So 95 percent currently of our students in the state of Arkansas attend public education, public schools, and I want 100 percent of all of our kids to get an equal chance at a great education, not just the rich ones, and, quite frankly, not just the poor ones that qualify for extra assistance,” Reisma said. 

Reisma said that at the moment four organizations are campaigning against the Education Rights Amendment:  “Two of them are backed by the governor with your public tax dollars. … What do all these have in common? They want to privatize public education in the state of Arkansas, and we cannot let them do that. I have zero problems if somebody wants to take their child to private school, if that's what you want to do. You do you. But I do have a problem when you're taking public tax dollars to fund those schools, and they aren't living up to what our students need.” 

As of that evening, Reisma said, “We need just shy of 91,000 signatures to even get on their [the Arkansas Secretary of State’s Office] radar to be able to turn it in by July 5. But we need more than that, because some of those signatures will be eliminated. They will be very picky, even though there are six [amendment petitions] that they have to go through. Let's average it out to 100,000 each. That'd be about 600,000 signatures they've have to go through.” 

A question and answer period followed during which questions arose about what the requirements of home schooling households would be if the amendment passed. Reisma said that if these households accept tax dollars, they would be held to minimum state requirements. She cited her work when she lived in Iowa of visiting home schooling households for this purpose. 

Vote SoAR organizer and NAACP Hope Chapter President Sylvia Brown raised the concern about home schooled children being outside of the orbit of school staff required to be first reporters if they encounter signs of abuse, endangerment and neglect. 

“Yes, it's very concerning,” Reisma responded. “We have a high number of that in the state of Arkansas, and I mentioned Benton earlier. Just in Benton alone, there's over 400 kids that are considered homeless and can't come to school or struggle with coming to school. That's yet another population that's very concerning.  We are not in a good situation in Arkansas. We have to do something about it.” 

Brown said Thursday that the team is still counting the number of signatures it got. “We've had signers from all parts of Hempstead--from Springhill to Blevins. Folks can come to downtown Hope 109 S. Walnut to sign and visit and click ‘Where to Sign’ for signing locations in other counties.”