©Wendell Griffen, 2023
March 9, 2023
Pastors for Florida
Sheraton Four Points
(316 W. Tennessee Street)
Thank you for inviting me to join Diane
Ravitch in addressing you today during this Prayer Breakfast based on the theme
of Uniting in Spirit for Public Education in Florida. I was pleasantly
surprised when Rev. Shapard and Rev. Golden approached me in January with the
invitation and am grateful to them and to you for making my participation
possible today. I have titled my keynote address Facing the Threat to Public
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.
· 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
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 became a national
commitment to public education.
The Northwest Ordinances of 1785 and 1787 that
were 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 the 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 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 were racial
integration was taking place to segregated schools, even if the students were transferring to segregated private
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 for 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
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 a safe,
accessible, and reliable ground transportation system of roads, streets, and
No serious person accepts the idea that
individuals have a right to take funds dedicated for 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 build and maintain 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 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
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 the 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 knowing science, history, and about 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.
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 turn 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 opiods – from the challenges of fact-finding and
truth-telling… Political authoritarianism begins with a lie…” (Miguel De La Torre, Resisting
Apartheid America, page 102 (Eerdmans, 2023).
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
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, to resist robbery, deceit, and
hypocrisy, and to 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
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
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
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.
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