I am a product of public education. I was born September 23, 1952—making me now 71 years old—when Jim Crow public segregation was required by law in Arkansas. 

Although my family lived less than three miles from Delight High School in Pike County, 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. 

That was 11 years after the U.S. Supreme Court issued the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. That was eight 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, where Ron DeSantis is governor, 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 based 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 white unwealthy males were not expected to be educated— unless white male benefactors and patrons deemed it suitable or beneficial for them to be literate and know how to calculate quantities.

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 his success set the stage for what eventually became a national commitment to public education. 

The Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787 that 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 political and legal 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 universal voucher program in Florida, Arkansas (which Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed into law and is known as the LEARNS Act) 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. 

History proves—and I remember—quite well 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, Arkansas had 160 public white high schools, but only six public Black high schools— in Little Rock, Hot Springs, Pine Bluff, Fort Smith, Helena and Texarkana.

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 3,000 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). That “diversion” of public funds that were supposed to be used to build a high school for Black children forced Black parents to raise money through the Julius Rosenwald Fund to build Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School in Little Rock.

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 desegregated public schools insisted that parents had the right to choose where and how their children should be educated. They contended that parents had the right to choose with whom their children should be educated. Back then, like now, they argued that 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.

Editor’s Note: Part two of “Facing the Threat to Public Education” will appear tomorrow.

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