Little Rock Central High students protest alumna Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ legislative agenda

Students plan Wednesday rally at the state Capitol, protesting the LEARNS Act

By: - March 3, 2023 5:04 pm
Little Rock Central High School students protesting in their campus courtyard

Little Rock Central High School students pack the school’s courtyard during a 20-minute walkout on Friday, March 3, 2023. Several student organizations protested Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ invocation of the school in promoting the LEARNS Act, a new law that changes several aspects of the state’s education system. (Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate)

More than 1,000 Little Rock Central High School students walked out of class Friday afternoon and gathered in front of the school, protesting Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ education agenda and her references to the school while promoting it.

Students published an open letter to Sanders on Wednesday, stating that her approach to education policy is “completely antithetical to the values that Central High stands for” and describing how they believe several elements of Senate Bill 294, or the LEARNS Act, would negatively affect the school and its students.

During the 20-minute walkout, students held up signs with slogans, including “Education isn’t indoctrination,” “Public funds should go to public schools” and “Future voters against LEARNS.”

The wide-ranging LEARNS Act would create a new voucher program directing public funds to private schools and other qualifying education expenses, ban “indoctrination” and critical race theory, limit discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation in classrooms, increase teacher pay and repeal the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act, among other things.

Little Rock Central’s core values are ambition, personality, opportunity and preparation, according to four statues that have overlooked the campus for decades. Sanders’ policy goals threaten her own alma mater’s values, according to the letter.

“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.”

Sanders invoked the school she once attended and its importance to racial desegregation in both her inaugural address and the Republican response to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech. She said she remembered watching her father, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and President Bill Clinton hold open the school’s doors for members of the Little Rock Nine 40 years after they were denied admission to the school.

“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,” Gryffyn May, a senior and a co-author of the letter, read aloud to the crowd at the walkout.

Friday’s rally was coordinated by the school’s student council, NAACP chapter and Young Leftists chapter. May spoke on behalf of the Young Leftists and the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance.

Seniors Bekah Jackson and Ernest Quirk and junior Addison McCuien co-wrote the letter with May.

More than 1,500 current and former Central High students, parents and employees have co-signed the letter.

If Governor Sanders were actually interested in increasing literacy rates, her bill would focus on ensuring that our children aren’t coming to class on an empty stomach or recovering from a winter night without heat.

– Little Rock Central High School students in an open letter against the LEARNS Act

The LEARNS Act has marched through the Legislature, but it has faced opposition from members of both political parties. It passed the House on Thursday and will return to the Senate for approval of amendments that some legislators requested.

If the Senate Education Committee passes the bill Monday, the full Senate will vote on it Tuesday.

Central High students will hold a rally on the Capitol steps to symbolically deliver the open letter to Sanders on Wednesday, the day she could sign the LEARNS Act into law.

May told the Advocate that the organizers were proud of Friday’s turnout and expect a larger one Wednesday, including parents and elected officials.

Madison Tucker, the NAACP chapter president and senior class president, said she considered the walkout “life-changing.”

She spoke against the concept of “indoctrination” and Sanders’ ban on critical race theory during the rally. Critical race theory is typically not taught in K-12 schools in Arkansas and is reserved mostly for graduate-level college coursework. Sanders signed an executive order prohibiting the teaching of this concept in Arkansas schools on Jan. 10, her first day in office.

Critical race theory acknowledges the ongoing reality of systemic racism in America, Tucker said.

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

One rally-goer held a sign that said “You can’t spell Central without CRT.”

The students’ letter describes school voucher programs as a form of segregation, disproportionately allowing financially stable white families to fund their children’s private school education with public money and leave poor families and students, many of them non-white, behind.

The letter also criticizes the portion of the LEARNS Act that replaces existing mental health programs for students with “an ambiguous ‘training’ that is left at the discretion of [Sanders’] political appointees at the State Board of Education,” as well as the section allowing third-graders to be held back from fourth grade if they do not meet certain reading standards.

“If Governor Sanders were actually interested in increasing literacy rates, her bill would focus on ensuring that our children aren’t coming to class on an empty stomach or recovering from a winter night without heat,” the Central High students wrote.

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Tess Vrbin
Tess Vrbin

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.