OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Doomed to repeat history

Let's consider a bit of history and see if the cliché occurs to us naturally. I refer to the phrase made worn by truth about those who ignore history being doomed to repeat it.

A popular National Public Radio podcast on race visited Little Rock last month and explored whether Gov. Sarah Sanders' LEARNS Act might have racial implications linking it to the integration crisis in 1957 at Little Rock Central High School.

Little Rock's place in national and even world history--and the city's curse still--is a struggle with racial segregation and racially unequal educational opportunities.

The "Code Switch" podcast--recorded live last month before an audience at the Arkansas Repertory Theater for broadcast on NPR last Wednesday--explored the risk that LEARNS, with its vouchers for private, church and home schools, will come along seven decades later to exacerbate resegregation and widen unequal opportunities, even to re-ignite and re-live, rather than learn from, the past.

A guest on the podcast was Dr. Sybil Jordan Hampton, approximately as exemplary a person as you'll meet. She holds a lonely pivotal position in Little Rock history.

The Central desegregation ugliness occurred at the start of school in 1957. In 1958, then-Gov. Orval Faubus, availing himself of a law the Legislature gave him in a late-summer special session, closed Little Rock high schools rather than allow their racial integration. In 1959, the high schools reopened, and, at Central, three Black students entered where nine had famously been two years before.

Hampton was the only entering Black 10th-grader. She became the first Black student to attend all three high school years at Central, graduating in the class of 1962.

She describes getting picked on--abused, really--her sophomore year and being shunned throughout her high school years. She recalls that only three or four classmates ever spoke to her.

She went on to get a master's degree from the University of Chicago and another master's and a doctorate from Columbia. She worked in higher education administration and consultancy and did a 10-year stint as head of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation in Little Rock. She still graces Little Rock by living here.

One of the podcast hosts asked her what she made of the LEARNS Act. Speaking in typical soft tones and with typical clear meaning, she said that, shortly before Faubus closed the schools, the Legislature gave him not only the power to do that, but also passed an interesting bill. It said that, for the year of high-school closure, the level of state per-pupil funding--a voucher, essentially--would be supplied for any affected student to take to a private or other public school.

It may indeed be that there is nothing new under the sun.

Vouchers were used then to keep public schools closed, with the intended effect of protecting segregation. They are being applied now either to make public schools better via competition, as some theorize, or, as others warn, drain the remaining life from resegregating public schools by paying students with the wherewithal to leave them. That conceivably could relegate public schools to being underfunded defaults for kids without an education ethic.

Vouchers probably won't amount to much in small-town white rural Arkansas where folks are culturally and emotionally attached to the local public schools where they got educated, met their spouses and played football or basketball.

Vouchers will make change, or do damage, mostly in Little Rock, where there are excellent upscale private schools, mostly white and high-dollar, and public schools with mixed records of performance by students of color, many mired in cycles of disadvantage.

Vouchers could amount in those cases to kicking public schools and those left in them while they're down, rather than helping them up.

Hampton told the podcast hosts that, in the so-called Lost Year of 1958, more than 90 percent of affected white students found schooling elsewhere. Only about 50 percent of Black students went to school that year, she said, and many of those who didn't attend never went back.

"There is a link there," she said, meaning with LEARNS.

Consider the current year, the first for modern vouchers: About 95 percent of the vouchers went to students who did not attend a public school last year but were enrolled already in the very private schools they were still attending. But they were now doing so with the advantage to their parents of a healthy new subsidy from the state government.

We have only one year of experience in each case--1958-59 and 2023-24--for making comparisons or venturing conclusions. So, we can only wait and see.

For now, we have on one hand voucher advocates foretelling reform spurred by the competition ethic.

We have on the other hand ... well, we have that hovering cliché.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected]. Read his @johnbrummett feed on X, formerly Twitter.

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