Facing the Threat to Public Education - Word&Way

Facing the Threat to Public Education

The following has been adapted from a keynote address given during a Prayer Breakfast in Tallahassee, Florida.

I am a product of public education. I was born September 23, 1952 — making me 70 years old — when Jim Crow public segregation was required by law in Arkansas, as in Florida. Although my family lived less than three miles from Delight High School, I didn’t know where it was until September 1965, when Black children from my rural neighborhood began attending Delight High School for the first time.

Wendell Griffen

That was eleven (11) years after the Supreme Court of the United States issued the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

That was eight (8) years after nine Black children were admitted to Little Rock Central High School thanks to the presence of troops from the 101st Airborne Division.

Like Florida, public education was segregated by race in Arkansas. And like Florida, the inequities associated with Jim Crow public education were known by religious people. Religious people in Arkansas, as in Florida, conceived, enacted, implemented, administered, and boasted about a public education system that was bottomed on the American version of apartheid.

It is important that we remember this history. And it is important to remember that in the earliest days of this society, education was primarily viewed as a privilege defined by race, sex, and class, whether the education was religious or secular. White males from wealthy families were expected to be educated, literate, and therefore suitable for civic, clerical, and commercial leadership and power. Females, persons of color, and laborers were not expected to be educated unless white male benefactors and patrons deemed it suitable or beneficial.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were early advocates of public education in their home states of Virginia and Massachusetts. Jefferson’s attempt to get his idea enacted into law failed, but Adams succeeded, and that success set the stage for in time becoming a national commitment to public education.

The Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787 which marked the first westward expansion of the United States beyond the original 13 states prove this point. The Ordinance of 1785 specified how every square inch of land would be divided into counties and towns. Every new town had to set aside one-ninth of its land and one-third of its natural resources for the financial support of public education. And every town had to reserve land in the center of town for a public school. Then, alongside a number of individual rights that later made their way into the Constitution, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 declared that as a necessity of “good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” These measures to set aside land and dedicate funding for public education were conditions for enlarging the young United States.

It is important to remember that the present challenges facing public education in Arkansas, Florida, and elsewhere across the United States are not new. Although we have bragged for generations about how far society has come in desegregating public education, the current situation shows that we were mistaken, if not self-deceived.

The “education reform” program in Florida, Arkansas (which Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed into law yesterday), and numerous other states is merely a re-imagined, re-costumed, and re-purposed version of the Jim Crow system that proponents of what they call “school choice” would like us to forget, but which history proves — and I remember — quite well. Remember that free public education did not begin in Florida and Arkansas until after the Civil War.

Although attempts to establish a system of public schools began in Florida as early as 1831 when the Florida Education Society was founded in Tallahassee, an 1832 law made it illegal to educate Black persons, whether free or enslaved. In Arkansas, Governors called for state aid for public schools without much success as early as 1840.

Even after the federal government set aside land to be sold to raise revenue for new educational buildings, the Arkansas legislature refused a gubernatorial plea that localities dedicate the proceeds of the land sales to education. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas reports that “in general, the antebellum era in Arkansas was marked by repeated governmental budgetary shortfalls, and supporting public education at any level was not a high priority for the state. Although the pre-Civil War Arkansas state constitution had a general clause about supporting public education, it was not until after the war that the constitution required a system of free schools in the state.”

By 1920, Black students in the racially segregated Arkansas public schools made up 30 percent of the total student enrollment. However, Black public schools only received ten percent of state educational funds. In 1920, there were 160 public white high schools, but only six public Black high schools in Arkansas.

Most people do not know that what is now Little Rock Central High School, the most famous public high school in the United States — if not the world — was originally titled “Little Rock Senior High School” when it opened in 1927 and called “the most beautiful high school in America.” The school, for white students only, was built to accommodate 3000 students. Because there were not enough white students, the all-white school board created Little Rock Junior College which operated in the building from 1927 to 1931 — for white students only.

When Black parents complained about the inadequate facilities for Black children school board officials admitted that money to build a new high school for Black students had been “diverted” to construct Little Rock Senior High (Central). Decades later, after the Supreme Court refused to delay further integration of Little Rock schools in 1958, Governor Orval Faubus ordered that all public schools in Little Rock be closed. Then the Arkansas legislature passed a law in March 1959 authorizing the state to pay the costs for students who transferred from schools where racial integration was taking place to segregated schools, even if the students were transferring to segregated private schools.

After Brown v. Board of Education was decided, opponents to desegrated public schools insisted that parents had the right to choose where and how their children should be educated. Parents had the right to choose with whom their children should be educated. Parents had the right to choose schools that reflected their personal and community values. Those are the same assertions driving the clamor for universal vouchers — in Florida, Arkansas, and elsewhere throughout the United States — to divert public funds dedicated to educating all children without cost to private entities (parents, private religious, secular, and other schools).

I remember how private schools were imagined, established, financed, and operated to prevent all children from being educated together. I remember how the supporters of those private schools complained that their hard-earned tax dollars were spent to maintain public schools that did not reflect their segregationist values. And I know that public dollars were “diverted” to build and operate racially segregated schools for white children in Florida, Arkansas, and elsewhere.

Hence, I know that the current assertions about “school choice,” “education reform,” and “universal vouchers” are merely old trash in new packages. As I sometimes remarked to lawyers who made outlandish arguments when I was an active judge, “I wear a T-shirt, but it does not read ‘Boo-Boo the Fool.’”

Here is why the “school choice” scheme advanced by your Governor, Ron DeSantis, and by my Governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, deserves a “Boo-Boo the Fool” denunciation. In Florida, Arkansas, and elsewhere throughout the United States, there is a transportation network of roads, streets, and highways. This network is supported by public revenue based on taxes on motor fuel and vehicles.

The public transportation network operates for all travelers, regardless of political and religious ideology, economic status, immigration status, racial and ethnic background, and other social constructs. The public transportation network is not bottomed on individual choice. It is bottomed on a need we recognize that is common in every society. All persons need a safe, accessible, and reliable ground transportation system of roads, streets, and highways. Government has an obligation to provide people with a safe, accessible, and reliable ground transportation system of roads, streets, and highways.

No serious person accepts the idea that individuals have a right to take funds dedicated to the free public ground transportation system so they can build their own roads, streets, and highways. Despite whatever preferences we may have about how to get from one place to another, no law — whether in Florida, Arkansas, or anyplace else in the United States — permits people to take public funds dedicated to building and maintaining free public roads, streets, highways, and bridges and use those funds to build private roads, streets, highways, and bridges. That has nothing to do with an individual preference for a different transportation system or a different route. It has everything to do with a common need for safe, accessible, and reliable public ground transportation.

Wal-Mart has its own trucks and distribution needs. But Wal-Mart doesn’t have a right to take public transportation funds to build its own transportation network. Delta Airlines has its own aircraft fleet and destination selections. But Delta doesn’t have a right to take public aviation funds to build its own aviation network.

Hence, the so-called “school choice” movement deserves to be denounced as a “Boo-Boo the Fool” assertion. If parents want to educate their children at home or in private schools, be they sectarian or secular, they may do so. If parents want their children to be ignorant about the rich cultural diversity of our society, and about the mistakes and wrongs we have committed against indigenous and people of color, they can set up their own schools with their own money to do so.

But no parent — in Florida, Arkansas, or elsewhere in the United States — has the right to demand a subsidy from the US public education system so they can secede from it. No parent has the right to demand that society finance academic fraud. No parent has the right to demand that we dismantle an educational system based on pedagogy because they do not like their children to know science, history, and the experiences of other people in our society. No parent has the right to demand that all of us subsidize their decision to secede with their children from democracy!

That’s Boo-Boo the Fool talk based on Confederate States of America thinking. The “school choice” scheme is a 21st Century version of the Civil War where every parent who secedes from the public education system opens fire — Fort Sumter-like — to raid the system of free reliable public education for all children and any child.

Barry Zhou / Unsplash

Every voucher demand is a Confederate States of America raid on public education.

Every lie that public schools and teachers are “indoctrinating” children is a Confederate States of America raid on the truth about history, science, sociology, and economics.

Every scheme to prohibit public schools from teaching about the history of bigotry, discrimination, and hate in this society is a 21st-century attempt to transform public schools into the Woodrow Wilson White House where D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was shown to validate bigotry, ignorance, and distrust against marginalized people.

These Confederate States of America and “Lost Cause” Boo-Boo the Fool schemes are a callous and calculated attack against democracy. Instead of a pluralistic society, what Governor DeSantis and Governor Sanders want is a fascist apartheid society based on a Euro-Christian ideology that, as Miguel A. De La Torre accurately states in his latest book, Resisting Apartheid America, “fosters, supports, and celebrates ignorance… to numb the public — like opioids — from the challenges of fact-finding and truth-telling… Political authoritarianism begins with a lie…” (p. 102.)

There is nothing “new” or “innovative” about lying and promoting ignorance to fool the public into accepting authoritarianism. There is nothing “new,” “innovative,” or “reform” about using bigotry, ignorance, religious nationalism, and discrimination against marginalized people to trick people to accept fascism. There is nothing “new” or “innovative” about censorship concerning what students can read, learn, and explore together. There is nothing new about using the government to shut down freedom to learn together, work together, play together, and live together. That is not “reform,” or “progress.” That is retrenchment. It is a return to Jim Crow apartheid. That is fascism.

That is why we must be united and denounce politicians and profiteers who assert on one hand that all children are entitled to free public education yet support a private voucher scheme that raids the fund for free public education. With one voice, we must say that they are not patriots.

With one voice, we must say that politicians, profiteers, and preachers who want to prevent public schools from teaching facts about science, history, and social studies are not public-minded or public-spirited. With one voice, we must declare that they are neo-fascist raiders who are shamelessly pimping all children to advance an authoritarian, roguish, and treasonous anti-public education agenda aimed at destroying democracy.

Hence, it is our responsibility as moral leaders to say so. It is our responsibility as people of conscience to call their so-called “school choice” agenda what it is, a neo-Confederate States of America scheme to de-fund, dismantle, re-segregate, and privatize education in the United States to advance Euro-Christian authoritarianism and fascism.

Bear in mind that our national system of free public education is a post-Civil War development. It is our duty, as people of moral and social clarity and integrity, to cut through the hogwash that politicians, profiteers, and Euro-Christian evangelical people are spouting about “school choice” and denounce this scheme for open war on free accessible public education for all children.

So, I have not come here to talk about how to have kumbaya meetings with proponents of what is falsely titled “school choice.” I have come to exhort, urge, beseech, implore, and plead with you to be united and bold prophets in this moment. In the spirit of prophets everywhere and in every era, stand up together for public education, public educators, and public schools for Florida’s children.

All the children. Every child from any family.

I have not come to tell you to be diplomatic. I have come to urge you to be united and defiant. Be united and disruptive. Be united and disobedient. Be united examples of dissent, defiance, and prophetic integrity in the face of imperial tyranny and unchecked authoritarianism.

Be united activists and find attorneys who will take you as clients to mount legal challenges to the “school choice” agenda. Yes, there are strong and sound First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment legal challenges we can assert.

As a community of prophets, preach to everyone about the wrong of taking what others need in order to gratify self-centered aims. That was the moral and mortal wrong committed by Cain, who took the life Abel needed simply to gratify his sense of entitlement.

As a community of prophets, preach about rulers who disregard love and justice in the name of bigotry by using national security as an excuse. That was the wrong of the Egyptian ruler who enslaved Hebrew people in order to keep them as unpaid workers.

Preach as one community of prophets. Teach as one community of prophets. Correct. Confront. Organize. Encourage. Defy. Dissent. Disrupt. Do these things because you are a community of prophets. Teach others to do these things together because we must organize and fight and fight together, as one community, against the forces that are hell-bent on destroying free public education for all children.

And when you do this, resist the temptation to separate you. Resist the temptation to invite a few of you to the Governor’s mansion for a photo op. Resist the temptation to be intimidated into silence when you are demeaned, denounced, and condemned by the pundit class, and by people who oppose love and justice. Nevertheless, press onward as a community of prophets determined to speak truth to power, resist robbery, deceit, and hypocrisy, and expose threats to democracy.

As prophets from diverse sacred, secular, political, cultural, and other backgrounds, show Florida that you are a united community of prophets, not pawns who will stand by while the system of free public education for all children is dismantled, re-segregated, defunded, and privatized. Show Florida that you will not sell out the hope for democracy that public education represents.

As a community of prophets, you and I must demand that Pharoah DeSantis and Pharoah Sanders stop lying about “school choice” and “education reform.” As a community of prophets in Florida and Arkansas, we must lead a counter-offensive of lawsuits, marches, demonstrations, and nonviolent civil disobedient actions against the threat to free public education for all children.

I will be working in Arkansas with you. I will look for news of your resistance. I will look for news of your defiance and civil disobedience. I will be cheering for you, praying for you, and resisting alongside you.

But the most important people will be the Children of Florida, Arkansas, and other states whose learning and lives will suffer if we do not resist and defeat the Civil War threat against public education. For their sakes, let us spare no pain to resist, defy, and invalidate the latest neo-Confederate States of America attack on public education.

Let the children of Florida and Arkansas see us fighting this good fight, together. Let the children of Florida and Arkansas join us in fighting this good fight, together.

The children will not forget that we fought this good fight, together. We will not forget that we fought this good fight alongside the children, and for them, together. And history will not forget that we fought it, that we fought it for the children, and that we and the children won this good fight, together.


Wendell Griffen is an Arkansas circuit judge and pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. This piece first appeared on his blog, The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope.