Education bill protested at Central High

Walkout staged by 1,000 students

Little Rock Central High School students stream out of the historic building during Friday’s walkout. Student council President Steve Abochale said the protest aimed to “set an example” and raise awareness about Senate Bill 294.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)
Little Rock Central High School students stream out of the historic building during Friday’s walkout. Student council President Steve Abochale said the protest aimed to “set an example” and raise awareness about Senate Bill 294. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

Over 1,000 students at Little Rock Central High School walked out in protest of Gov. Sarah Sanders' LEARNS Act on Friday.

This comes after students released a letter to the governor about her invocation of Central High history in her speeches and legislation. Over 1,500 students, alumni, parents and staff have signed the letter, which takes a stance against the bill.

"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 stated.

"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."

Senate Bill 294, also known as the LEARNS Act, is the Republican governor's education initiative, an omnibus bill that would allow students to use state funds to attend a private or home school and set a $50,000 minimum starting salary for teachers. LEARNS stands for Literacy, Empowerment, Accountability, Readiness, Networking and Safety.

The bill also includes provisions against the "indoctrination" of students with critical race theory that the bill describes as conflicting with the principle of equal protection under the law or encouraging students to discriminate against someone based on characteristics protected by federal or state law.

The bill passed the House on a 78-to-21 vote Thursday. The Senate will still need to vote to concur with the House's amendment to the bill before it heads to the governor for her signature.

At the protest on Friday, student council President Steve Abochale said the Young Leftists organization at Central High contacted the council about organizing a protest after reading Sanders' bill.

"I want to -- not just to set an example about what to do -- I want us to set an example about how to help," he said. "I think Central High School is one of ... We are kind of the example. I feel like if we do this, to bring awareness, not only will we bring awareness to the bill, we will also bring support from other public schools because this affects other public schools. It's not just us. It's the LRSD, this is such a big matter and if we can bring awareness to even just one school, then our job is done."

Abochale said if this bill "keeps up" then the state will "be regressing back to private school domination."

Abochale's sister Mimi, who is also on the student council, said education is very important to her and she wanted to make a change.

"The goal is to shed light on the hypocrisy of the Arkansas government," she said. "The bill wants to cut teachers' pay for their master's, they don't want to pay for their master's, and the cuts are just giving money to the more elitist institutions like private schools, while kids who choose to go to public school, they're not getting the benefits that they deserve."

She said Central "will not be quiet" and "will always fight for our school and freedom to teach."

Kimberly Crutchfield, a psychology, sociology, civics and economics teacher at Central, said she's been fighting against the bill since it was made public.

"I'm supporting our kids, show their voice, show what they want their communities and their schools to look like in the future," she said.

Public education, Crutchfield said, is an equalizer to help people move out of the economic status they were born in.

"If you don't have great public schools, you take away that option," she said. "It also helps us come together, learn each other's perspectives on life. It is a true democracy in action in the public school level. So I believe in public education, I believe in the kids being able to voice their opinions. I believe, in funding education, special ed, public ed, and I believe in the choice, too, for kids to go to private school, parochial schools, or charter schools, that is their choice, but public education should be funded by public dollars and not the other entities."

Johan Gonzalez, a member of the Young Leftists organization, said the LEARNS Act "attacks" fundamentals that minority groups stand for.

"We do have a voice and we're not afraid to use it, because it's really important to stand up for what you believe," he said. "And we're really doing this to motivate other high schoolers to also take the same actions."

Gonzalez said the school plans to protest again Wednesday at the state Capitol after school about 4:30 p.m.

The governor's office did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

  photo  Madison Tucker, senior class president at Little Rock Central High School, addresses fellow students during their protest Friday in front of the school. More than 1,000 students staged a walkout over Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ education legislation. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Colin Murphey)

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