Little Rock Central High Students, Alumni, Teachers, and Parents Stand Against Governor Sanders' Invocation of Our School

We ask that any student, alum, employee, former employee, parent, or former parent of Little Rock Central High School who believes that Central should reject Governor Sanders' hateful agenda sign here to make your voice heard.

Ambition. Personality. Opportunity. Preparation.

Carved into the face of the monumental Little Rock Central High School, four statues overlook the campus grounds, each representing a different principle for which the school stands. Almost a century after these pillars were embedded into the walls of the building, Central High remains a beacon for these fundamental components of education. Today, because of Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her omnibus education bill, the proposed LEARNS Act, these ideals are in danger.

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. 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.

Governor Sanders’ approach is completely antithetical to the values that Central High stands for. 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 irony of Governor Sanders’ employment of Central High’s renowned history in her State of the Union Rebuttal is that her crusade against what she claims to be Critical Race Theory (CRT) would likely erase that very history. In Section 16 of the LEARNS bill, Sanders defines CRT as an ideology that “emphasizes skin color as a person’s primary characteristic, thereby resurrecting segregationist values.” This is a complete perversion of the reality of CRT. 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. As the American Bar Association puts it, “CRT recognizes that racism is codified in law, embedded in structures, and woven into public policy.” They continue by explaining that ignoring race does not “[demonstrate] neutrality,” but rather “[adheres] to the existing racial hierarchy.” Indeed, the Brown v. Board decision, upon which the Central High integration was based, was an explicit recognition of this truth. The notion of “separate, but equal,” which at the time was considered a neutral stance, was in fact a continuation of the public school system’s already established racial disparities. If one were to approach the 1957 Central High crisis from Governor Sanders’ perspective, one would be ignoring the racist policies and laws that Sanders is so proud of getting rid of. Would Sanders have us forget that it was the Governor who called on the troops to build a blockade to keep Black students out of Central High? Would she have us forget that the angry mobs of white Arkansans who verbally and physically attacked Elizabeth Eckford were protected by the police? Would she have us forget that the state of Arkansas closed Little Rock high schools in the fall of 1958 in order to stop integration? 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.

Sanders continues to invoke Central High’s legacy in her rebuttal by expressing her pride in our public schools’ movement away from discriminatory behavior. And yet, the final portion of Section 16, under the guise of preventing “human trafficking,” outlines Governor Sanders’ intention to prohibit classroom discussion surrounding topics such as “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” before the fifth grade. The true purpose of this clause is not to protect the innocence of schoolchildren, but to place a target on the backs of LGBTQ+ students in our public schools. For example, heterosexual relationships are ubiquitous in almost every aspect of pre-fifth grade education. There are no parents filing complaints about how children’s books mention husbands and wives. It’s clear that their grievance is not with sexual orientation, but with homosexuality in itself. The same can be said about gender, where the issue is not with gender identity, an innocuous concept, but with trans identity in particular. Governor Sanders’ attempts to sexualize the existence of the LGBTQ+ community is contradictory to the values of Central High.

In Section 2 of the LEARNS bill, Sanders outlines a significant change in the Youth Mental Health First Aid certification required of public and private school resource officers. The bill replaces the current mental health sensitivity program designed by qualified professionals with an ambiguous “training” that is left at the discretion of her political appointees at the State Board of Education. Historically, the State Board of Education has been glaringly obvious in their disregard for the quality of public education, as evidenced by their takeover of the Little Rock School District and their pro-charter school policies. Governor Sanders’ prioritization of her political agenda over the mental health and well-being of our youth will only further the deterioration of our already crumbling public education system.  

Section 29 of the LEARNS bill declares that a student may be held back from advancing to fourth grade if they do not meet the required reading standards. According to the Department of Education, 65% of Arkansas’ third graders and 80% of Arkansas’ Black third graders do not meet literacy requirements. In fact, there are districts in our state where 100% of third grade students would be considered ineligible. This regressive measure ignores the abundance of data that shows that poor socioeconomic conditions are the biggest contributors to declining literacy rates. 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.

Section 33 of the LEARNS Bill also eliminates vital protections that have safeguarded our teachers for decades. The bill intends to abolish the Fair Teacher Dismissal Act, which ensures that there are comprehensive procedures in place for teachers who are facing termination. This will deplete our public schools of experienced educators and contribute to rising concerns over job security that teachers face.

Governor Sanders’ plan to allocate millions of taxpayer dollars to students attending private institutions is the most destructive aspect of her plan to decimate public schools. Specifically, Section 63 of the LEARNS Bill covers public school financing. The budget for public schools is calculated on a per-student basis to ensure that it is proportional to the student population. During the 2020-2021 school year, the state provided schools with $7,013 per student. Under the guise of promoting “school choice,” Governor Sanders’ bill would allow students and families to repurpose 90% ($6,311) of their allocated funds to pay for a private school of their choosing. Moreover, families whose children are already attending and paying for private school will also be able to use these funds to pay their tuition. To put this into perspective, the Arkansas Times predicts that the state would spend “about $192 million in one school year” if “every student currently enrolled in private school (~26,000 Arkansas students) applies for a voucher account.” This will disproportionately harm rural areas, which already have less access to resources yet make up the majority of Arkansas’ school districts. 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. In such a case, as long as the student stays enrolled until October 11, the private school will be able to keep the voucher. Also, because private schools are not required to accept these vouchers, many will inevitably refuse to accept students who are more likely to bring down the school’s test scores. Historically, voucher programs have been used to maintain segregationist policies by giving white students the ability to transfer out of desegregated schools and into white institutions. It’s clear that Governor Sanders intends to uphold this tradition.

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. Governor Sanders, as students of Little Rock Central High School, we refuse to accept your desecration of our past and corruption of our futures.

WRITTEN BY: Bekah Jackson (Class of 2023), Gryffyn May (Class of 2023), Addison McCuien (Class of 2024), and Ernest Quirk (Class of 2023)

With Contributions from the following LRCH Students: Zaina Daaboul, Jo Dobry, Beecher De Rossitte, Maddy Douglas, Zora Key, Rhone Kuta, Ray Laster, Vienna Lewis, Bird Mosley-Sims, Kishaun Pitts, Parker Ruppel, Max Wiggins, and Melissa Xiang