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Bill resegregates, Central students write Sanders

by Cynthia Howell | March 2, 2023 at 4:31 a.m.
Classroom tile / photo courtesy of Getty Images

A student group at Little Rock Central High School has taken a public stand against Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' invocation of Central High history in her speeches, and also to her education legislation known as the proposed Arkansas LEARNS Act.

"Sarah Huckabee Sanders' LEARNS bill will usher in a new era of segregation in Arkansas, where middle and upper class white families take resources from public schools to escape to private ones, leaving marginalized kids with crumbling facilities, an antiquated curriculum, and teachers who are forced to prioritize their job security over the quality of their instruction," concludes the letter/petition.

The online, open letter was written by students Bekah Jackson, Gryffyn May, Addison McCuien and Ernest Quirk with contributions from 12 others: Zaina Daaboul, Jo Dobry, Beecher De Rossitte, Maddy Douglas, Zora Key, Rhone Kuta, Ray Laster, Bird Mosley-Sims, Kishaun Pitts, Parker Ruppel, Max Wiggins, and Melissa Xiang.

The full letter is available here:

"Governor Sanders, as students of Little Rock Central High School, we refuse to accept your desecration of our past and corruption of our futures," says the letter, which had garnered 989 signatures as of Wednesday evening.

Those signatures are from 778 self-identified as students, 204 parents and 48 employees -- all currently or previously associated with Central, said Malik Mitchell, volunteer community adviser to Central's Young Leftists organization.

The organization is the sponsor of the open-letter/petition.

Mitchell said Wednesday that the student group is working to decide how and when to present the letter to the governor.

The letter and petition come at a time when the Arkansas LEARNS bill, Senate Bill 294, is rapidly moving through the Legislature. It was approved last week by the Arkansas Senate and voted out of the House Education Committee on Wednesday to go to the full House.

The student-written letter also comes in advance of a student-organized peaceful walk-out that is planned at Central High on Friday in opposition to the governor, who is herself a Central High alumnae, and the proposed legislation.

Email requests to the governor's staff for a response from the governor to the student letter were not answered Wednesday evening.

LEARNS stands for Literacy, Empowerment, Accountability, Readiness, Networking and Safety.

The omnibus bill to revamp early childhood education-through-12th grade calls for an expanded, phased-in state-funded private and home school voucher system, a $14,000 increase to a $50,000-base teacher salary, the elimination of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act and retention -- with some exceptions -- of third-graders who are not achieving at grade level in reading.

It also includes provisions against indoctrination of students with Critical Race Theory that the bill describes as conflicting with the principle of equal protection under the law or encourages students to discriminate against someone based on characteristics protected by federal or state law.

The Central High students wrote that Sanders and the proposed LEARNS Act jeopardize the ideals of ambition, personality, opportunity and preparation that are represented by statues that are carved into the face of the landmark school.

"By siphoning funds and resources away from public education and into the private sector, the ambition of our disadvantaged students and hardworking faculty will be stifled," the letter states.

"Governor Sanders' intent to imitate policies similar to those of Florida's anti-LGBTQ+ legislation will suppress the free expression of personality."

"School choice policies which will favor upper-class families would create unequal opportunities for lower-income students."

"Reforms that attack school coursework deemed too inappropriate for students will dramatically decrease their preparation to face real-world social issues," the letter states.

"Governor Sanders' approach is completely antithetical to the values that Central High stands for," the Central students wrote. "As much as she tries to desperately cling to the legacy of our historic institution, we, as students of Central High, unequivocally reject her exploitation of our school's achievements."

The students note that Sanders in her speeches, including in her January rebuttal to the president's State of the Union message, referred to the 1997 40th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High with the ceremonial opening of Central's doors by then President Bill Clinton and then Gov. Mike Huckabee -- Sanders' father -- to the school's original nine Black students.

The students argue that Sanders' definition and "crusade" against critical race theory have the potential to "erase" Central's history that includes angry white mobs and lawmaker opposition to desegregation in 1957 and the closing of high schools in Little Rock in 1958-59 to stop desegregation.

"The teachings of CRT are not about demonizing individuals or discriminating based on race, but simply about accepting that the consequences of explicitly racist policies written by explicitly racist individuals are still present in our institutions," the students wrote.

The letter's authors added: "If Governor Sanders had her way, we wouldn't be able to examine how racism shaped these structures to allow for these violations to take place."

The letter raises questions about and criticizes other components of the Arkansas LEARNS bill. The letter writers focused on provisions to eliminate existing legal safeguards for school employees, changes in youth mental health programs and the retention of struggling third-grade readers. The letter writers argue that the reading initiative is a regressive measure that "ignores" data indicating the low socio-economic conditions are contributors to declining literacy rates.

The letter's authors also focus on the governor's proposal to make universally available taxpayer funded voucher system that will enable parents to direct public funding equal to 90% of per student foundation aid in public schools to education expenses in private and home schools. The proposed voucher system would be phased in and opened to all families within three years.

"This will disproportionately harm rural areas, which already have less access to resources yet make up the majority of Arkansas' school districts," the student letter wrote. "In addition, if a student doesn't meet a school's academic standards, they can lose their voucher and be sent back to their original school."

Print Headline: Bill resegregates, Central students write Sanders


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