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Little Rock Central High students protest Arkansas LEARNS bill

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Daniel Breen
Students protest Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' education package, dubbed Arkansas LEARNS, in front of Little Rock Central High School Friday.

Amid chants of “freedom of speech, freedom to teach,” hundreds of Little Rock Central High School students walked out of class Friday to voice their dissatisfaction with the Arkansas LEARNS bill nearing final approval in the state legislature.

The walkout comes after a group of students on Tuesday penned a letter to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a Central High graduate, demanding she stop using the school to “advance her agenda.” Passage of the omnibus education bill has been a hallmark of the governor’s first few months in office.

Gryffyn May with the school’s Young Leftists club addressed the crowd, saying the bill would impact “all aspects” of students’ education in Arkansas— specifically freedom of expression and protections for teachers facing termination. May referenced the values engraved on the school’s façade: ambition, personality, opportunity and preparation.

Daniel Breen
Gryffyn May with the Little Rock Central High Young Leftists addresses a crowd of fellow students outside of the school Friday.

“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,” May said, quoting from Tuesday’s open letter. “Gov. Sanders’ intent to imitate policies similar to those of Florida’s anti-LGBTQ+ legislation will suppress the free expression of personality.”

May urged students to stay informed and get involved in order to affect change, inviting them to another protest planned for next Wednesday at the Arkansas State Capitol.

Madison Tucker, senior class president and head of the school’s NAACP chapter, singled out the bill’s ban on “indoctrination” and critical race theory, or CRT.

“[CRT] recognizes that racism is more than the result of individual bias and prejudice; it is ingrained in the institutions, laws and policies that support and perpetuate racial inequality,” Tucker said. “Social issues including the higher mortality rate among Black Americans, the disproportionate exposure to police violence, the school-to-prison pipeline, the denial of access to affordable housing and the rate of Black women dying during childbirth are not isolated aberrations.

“Restricting teachers being able to discuss race, gender and controversial issues within our classrooms will promote erasure of America’s history, our history.”

Speaking with KUAR News, Tucker invoked the school’s place in the history of the Civil Rights movement.

“Our school was built on the Little Rock Nine, and Gov. Sanders uses that as a way to back up what she has going on for this LEARNS Act. But that’s actually in contradiction of what she is saying because our school is based on those laws that allowed us to go to school with other white children, that allowed us to have the same things that they have,” Tucker said.

Sanders perhaps most notably mentioned her alma mater in her response to President Biden’s State of the Union address on Feb. 7.

“As a student there, I will never forget watching my dad, Gov. Mike Huckabee, and President Bill Clinton hold the doors open to the Little Rock Nine, doors that 40 years earlier had been closed to them because they were Black,” Sanders said in her response. “I’m proud of the progress our country has made. And I believe giving every child access to a quality education - regardless of their race or income - is the civil rights issue of our day.”

Daniel Breen
Central High sophomore Eathan Walker sports a T-shirt bearing the likeness of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders while protesting her signature education reform bill on Friday.

Proponents of the LEARNS bill have said using public dollars to help fund students’ education in private, charter and parochial schools will give them freedom to attend a school that best fits their needs. Under the bill, state-funded “education freedom accounts” would give families up to 90% of the annual per-student public school funding rate for use on allowable education expenses, like private school tuition and homeschool costs.

Critics have drawn parallels from the bill’s school choice policies to the Little Rock School Board’s actions in the wake of the 1957 desegregation crisis at Central High. In the so-called “Lost Year” following the desegregation where all Little Rock public schools were shuttered, board members created attendance zones and allowed mainly white high schoolers to transfer to schools of their choice.

“[School choice] does not accommodate for people that are disadvantaged, and it directly goes against everything that our school believes in— helping people and supporting them in any way that they can— and putting more private and charter schools will directly take that away from students,” Tucker said.

Little Rock School District Superintendent Jermall Wright and Principal Nancy Rousseau joined numerous Central High teachers at the walkout. Students rallied for roughly 30 minutes before returning to class, and said they would not face disciplinary action for the walkout.

Lawmakers have heard hours of testimony on the LEARNS bill since it was filed on Feb. 27. State representatives voted Thursday to send the bill to a final vote in the Senate next week, where if passed, it will go to Gov. Sanders for a signature.

Daniel Breen is a Little Rock-based reporter, anchor and producer for KUAR.