PROTEST SIGNAGE: A protester holds a sign comparing Gov. Sarah Sanders to former leader Orval Faubus. Brian Chilson

If a person throws a firecracker under a horse knowing the sound will cause that horse to buck and throw its rider, then the person who threw the firecracker is responsible for the injury. The damage was predictable.

We know that while school vouchers do very little to improve student performance, they will upend and dismantle school communities. The arguments I hear in favor of vouchers are about parental choice, not about helping students do better in school. That’s because we know vouchers won’t really do that. What they’ll do is divide students along socioeconomic lines. This damage is predictable, and we’re doing it anyway.

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Vouchers are of little value to children who need expensive interventions to get the appropriate education to which they are entitled by law and by our state constitution. Neither charter schools nor private schools have shown the willingness to provide suitable environments and effective instruction for children with the greatest needs.

Public schools struggle mightily to serve the children of greatest need, and in the eyes of some they still fall short. But they accept every challenge. 

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The funding mechanisms (which are based on prototypical student composition, with categorical funding adjustments) break down when public schools are tasked with educating only the children of greatest need. That problem will get worse with vouchers, as students who are relatively easy and inexpensive to serve leave public schools behind. The fundamental ruling of Brown v. Board of Education was that separate schools can never be equal. That is still the law, yet the LEARNS Act takes us in the wrong direction.

Gov. Sarah Sanders said, when she announced her education reform bill, “With new education freedom accounts, parents will be able to send their kids to whatever school works best: Whether it is public, private, parochial or homeschool.” 

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If the evidence indicates that vouchers do not improve student performance, and their main benefit is an economic perk for those already in private schools, why are we going down this path? And why are we doing it now?  

Is it fair to assume the leaders who pushed and voted for Arkansas LEARNS — intelligent people who are capable of reading the research and reviewing the results in other states — intend the predictable consequences of their actions? In the fullness of time, does intention even matter if the predictable result is educational stagnation, with economic and racial segregation?

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Arkansas has an ugly history of segregation. Even so, the majority of our leaders seem unconcerned about resegregation as it overtakes Central and Eastern Arkansas.

Orval Faubus was a huge part of that ugly history. He grew up poor in an all-white area. He was a decorated veteran of World War II. His father was a socialist, and Faubus attended a loosely run communal college that espoused socialist principles.  

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Faubus was governor at a time when school integration was heavily disfavored in Arkansas. Even with his poor, socialist background, Faubus willingly and infamously championed the cause of segregation. Almost nothing else that he did is remembered.  Whatever his beliefs in his earlier years, when the issue rose to prominence, Faubus fervently supported segregation.   

The actions Faubus took were extremely popular at the time, and served his political aspirations well. Faubus received over 82% of the vote in the 1958 general election.  

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During the Faubus years, the people who opposed him were disheartened, but never ceased working to correct the mistakes he was making. My mother was a member of the Women’s Emergency Committee to reopen public schools in Little Rock. Those women, Black and white, were indomitable.

Faubus was in power until he decided not to run in 1966. Winthrop Rockefeller, who had run unsuccessfully in 1964, ran again and was elected by an unlikely coalition of liberal Democrats, Blacks and Republicans. Segregationist Jim Johnson was the defeated Democratic nominee. Rockefeller’s election gave hope back to many Arkansans. That 1966 election is worth further study as a possible way to bring like-minded public education supporters together.

Dr. Sybil Hampton is a friend of mine, and a person I admire very much. She is, among other accomplishments, a successful educator and the former president of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. She is a civil rights pioneer, and was the first Black student to graduate from Central High School after attending for all three of her high school years there. She remains a graceful, persistent and persuasive advocate for public education.    

Dr. Hampton recently reminded me that public schools do not just serve students and parents. Dr. Hampton says we must not forget that public schools serve the public.  The public as a whole benefits when students are equipped with the knowledge and interpersonal skills they need to be informed, productive and involved. She is right. 

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The majority of our legislators and our governor have elevated private choice over the public interest. They have elevated their short-term political interests over the longer term public interest.

We were warned about this kind of thing by a governor who took a number of courageous stands during his time in office.

We have to be willing “to sacrifice our political lives for the sake of our children’s future, in order that we would fulfill our obligations that we swore under oath that we would fulfill.” Those are the words of former governor and Sanders’ dad, Mike Huckabee. I remember the speech as one of the most inspirational and aspirational speeches on the future of Arkansas education.

All of the rhetoric about parental choice as a fundamental American right has been said before, and in earlier years some even advocated for the use of public money to fund that choice. It was a mistake in the past, and it will be a mistake in the future.

Implementation of universal vouchers will have the same result that was intended when the concept was first introduced in our state by a person who knew how to ride a wave of public sentiment to his own advantage.

“A student seeking an education in another school, either private or public, because of a situation such as exists here now, will have the benefit of all funds to be expended for his education. The funds follow him to the school of his choice anywhere within the state.” So said Gov. Orval E. Faubus on September 18, 1958.

History will judge us not by our words, but by the results of our actions.