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Students protest at Capitol after LEARNS bill signed

by Paige Eichkorn | March 9, 2023 at 5:09 a.m.
Little Rock Central High School students gather Wednesday on the steps of the state Capitol to protest the education overhaul law. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Hours after the LEARNS Act was signed into law by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, students from Little Rock Central High School delivered a letter opposing the legislation to the governor's desk and protested outside the state Capitol.

The LEARNS Act, which stands for Literacy, Empowerment, Accountability, Readiness, Networking and Safety, will increase teachers' salaries to a starting minimum of $50,000 and allow students to use state funds to attend a private or home school.

The governor has called the bill "the largest overhaul of the state's education system in Arkansas history."

It also includes provisions against the "indoctrination" of students with critical race theory, which 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. A repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act was also included.

Over 200 community members attended the protest Wednesday, including former state Sen. Joyce Elliott, Rep. Vivian Flowers and former candidate for governor Chris Jones.

Several students who were interrupted during an amendment hearing on the bill on Monday showed up to reiterate their points.

Max Wiggins, who signed up to speak in front of the Senate Education Committee, said the LEARNS Act will defund grade school programs and rural school districts.

"It would force students to make a decision of either fighting for a spot in a more secluded, smaller, more homogenous school than their school, but the problem is, that their school is being just thrown out," he said. "It's being defunded and crippled. We will see districts like ours crumble as they did in Florida and how they're trying to do in Arizona and other states like that."

Wiggins mentioned that the very generalized statements in the bill around Critical Race Theory were "intentional."

"To me, it's obvious what they're trying to do. They're trying to suppress the actual history of us and that is a stage in cultural genocide," he said. "And I think that's exactly what they're trying to do. That's also what I think they're trying to do to LGBTQ+ people, especially to trans people."

Wiggins hopes that the protest will cause enough of a stir to make legislators consider a repeal or allow for more revisions of the bill.

Gryffyn May, a senior at Central High, said she visited the senate hearing on Monday to remind senators of the Little Rock Nine -- the nine Black students who were stopped by the National Guard in 1957 when they tried to desegregate the school for the first time.

"I think that's a very important element of the conversation about education in Arkansas because the Little Rock Nine were the ones who made it so that most of my classmates could be here today," she said. "Without them, we would not all be where we are."

May said that the bill "disrespects" and "dishonors" the Little Rock Nine's legacy and "erases" their achievements in racial equity.

"All the nine who are still alive, they're still fighting for education rights, for equality for everything," she said. "I wanted to remind the senators of that. ... I also wanted to remind them that it's not just an issue for Arkansas. It will be an issue for many other states when other states start following suit with legislation like this. It's such a bigger issue than people may realize."

May noted that even though the bill has passed, "we're not just going to walk away." She hopes students will continue to fight because she doesn't want to see her younger sister and her teachers affected by future legislation.

Tamara Tyler, president of Central High's Black Student Union, spoke at the protest and said the anti-critical race theory movement is a political weapon used to "set us back 50 years to the Jim Crow era."

"First it will start within the schools, but history tells us it won't end there; they won't stop until they set back every aspect of our society."

Elliott said, when she was a teacher, she demanded that students decide what they think and how they think.

"I just want you to be an informed thinker and I demand that you use your brain and think for yourself. That is what you are doing," she said. "I know students are bright and brilliant and we need to let your light shine. ... More than anything else, the other thing I wanted to see from my students when they were this age, that you get involved with your government."

Ali Noland, legislative liaison for the Little Rock School Board, said she felt it was important to support students after they were silenced by the Senate Education Committee on Monday.

"I was so proud of these young people for trying to engage in this process, for taking an interest in public policy that was going to affect their lives and their communities," she said. "To see them walk away that day, you realize because they weren't listened to, was just really hard. So I was very, very excited and proud that they decided to come out and make sure that their voices were heard and that what they had to say didn't go unnoticed."

Flowers said she visited the protest to hear what students had to say and support their effort to be heard.

"I hope what comes from this is that they stay involved, that they stay informed, and to whatever extent that they're outraged, I hope that they harness that into voting and encouraging other young people to vote," she said. "Because every movement, source of change in our society over the years has come from young people doing just that."

Jones said he was there to support students' action against the bill and because they "are going to shape the future."

"I certainly expect and hope that they will maintain this energy and they will join that with the rural teachers who are not happy, with the families in remote areas that are not happy, and together they will use that energy to keep fighting for what we know to be right and to be better for our state."

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