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Little Rock Central students to walk out in protest of Gov. Sarah Sanders education bill

Students hold signs outside of Little Rock Central High School on Wednesday, March 1, 2023. — Ruthie Walls

(LITTLE ROCK, Ark.) — Storied Little Rock Central High School, cited by Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ campaign as formative in her rise to the Arkansas governor’s mansion, will be the site Friday of a student walkout to protest the cornerstone of her legislative agenda — the LEARNS Act, a massive education reform bill Sanders vows will be a “blueprint” for the nation.

During the school’s third period, at 1 p.m., several hundred students and faculty are expected to walk out of classes and onto the lawn of the historic institution, where in 1957 nine Black students were escorted by federal troops to enforce the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which ended the concept of “separate but equal” schools.

The walkout, organized by the school’s Young Leftists Club, in partnership with the Student Council, Black Student Union and Gay-Straight Alliance, comes after some in the group penned an open letter to Sanders voicing strong concerns with the legislation and asking she not use the school’s name to advance her agenda.

“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,” the letter begins. “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.”

In her Republican response last month to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, Sanders mentioned Central as her alma mater while announcing she would release the details of her education plan the next day. The open letter — with more than 1,300 signatures online since it was published Tuesday night — calls her approach “completely antithetical to the values that Central High stands for.”

“I will never forget watching my dad, Gov. Mike Huckabee, and President Bill Clinton hold the doors open to the Little Rock 9 — doors that 40 years earlier had been closed to them because they were Black,” Sanders said last month in the national spotlight. “Today, those children once barred from the schoolhouse are now heroes, memorialized in bronze at our state house. I’m proud of the progress our country has made and helping every child access to a quality education regardless of their race or income, is the civil rights issue of our day.”

The letter argues her bill will instead “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.”

The LEARNS Act, an omnibus bill intended to revamp education from early childhood classes through the 12th grade, calls for universal teacher raises, universal pre-K and a universal school voucher system phased in within three years. It also bans classroom instruction on “gender identity, sexual orientation, and sexual reproduction” before fifth grade — prompting comparisons to Florida — and bans teaching that would “indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory.”

The newly installed governor’s first legislative foray has seen overwhelming support among Republican lawmakers in the state legislature, who hold a supermajority. It passed the Arkansas House 78-21 on Thursday, and Sanders said she expects to sign it into law “early next week,” as soon as the amended text passes the Senate.

It took 13 days from Sanders’ State of the Union response for Republican lawmakers to release the full text of the 144-page bill and 10 days for it to clear both chambers of the statehouse. Four Republicans in the House and one in the Senate voted no.

“There are things that we know that are not working and areas where we must do better. This bill addresses that,” said Jessica Saum of Cabot, last year’s “Teacher of the Year” in Arkansas speaking this week at the state Capitol. “Gov. Sanders has said that she will be known as Arkansas’ education governor, and I believe that she is committed to that.”

Still, Central High students are preparing to walk out of Sanders’ alma mater Friday afternoon, not even two miles from the governor’s mansion.

Two student co-chairs with the school’s Young Leftists chapter, who spoke to ABC News in a phone interview on Thursday night, said they would continue to organize against the legislation despite its swift movement and likely passage. They’re planning a protest at the state Capitol next week to symbolically deliver the letter to Sanders.

“Me and all of my peers and a lot of my teachers, I know lots of people who were pretty disappointed and honestly appalled by the fact that she had kind of invoked the significance of Central,” said Ernie Quirk, a junior from Little Rock who helped write the letter. “The history of Central that she celebrates and touts as kind of part of her image, those are the kinds of things that would potentially be in danger with a lot this attack on what she calls indoctrination.”

“The Little Rock Nine deserve to have their stories told and I think it would be a tragedy if those stories were to be lost,” Quirk continued.

“We learn history to not recreate history,” added Addison McCuien, a junior whose mother is a longtime teacher at the school. “It would be devastating to watch that change unfold and for their legacy to be lost in history.”

Quirk and McCuien also reiterated concerns from the letter they co-wrote that Sanders’ policies “similar to those of Florida’s anti-LGBTQ+ legislation will suppress the free expression of personality,” raising comparisons to that state’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law.

Sanders’ education secretary, Jacob Oliva, whom she tapped from the staff of Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, told lawmakers at a single Senate committee hearing on the bill last week that it was difficult to come up with a single definition of “CRT” but that the legislation aims to ensure students are taught “how to think and not what to think.”

Sanders’ spokesperson, responding to questions from ABC News, did not say whether Sanders had seen the letter — but the students said they would welcome her acknowledgment and a chance to air their grievances.

“If she ever did feel inclined to talk to us, I would welcome that with the most open arms possible,” said Quirk. “Because I think it’s obvious this bill has not been very well thought through, and that’s because of the fact that in the in the state of Arkansas, as a Republican lawmaker, you’re not going to face opposition for any sort of deficiencies in any of the legislation you’re passing.”

“I would love for the governor to see our faces and hears our voices,” added McCuien, who is Black and identifies as queer.

“This type of rhetoric is spreading all around the country, and this type of legislation is continuing to go from state to state,” she added. “But I want to do as much as I can to try and stop it in Arkansas.”

Editor’s note: Reporter Libby Cathey is an alumna of Little Rock Central High School.

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