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Arkansas rejects AP African American Studies, cites Arkansas law on "prohibited topics"
The Arkansas Department of Education (DOE) abruptly rejected AP African American Studies, saying the course may violate Arkansas law. "The department encourages the teaching of all American history and supports rigorous courses not based on opinions or indoctrination," Kimberly Mundell, Director of Communications for the Arkansas DOE, told Popular Information on Monday. Mundell said the course may violate a new Arkansas law regarding "prohibited topics" in public schools.
In March, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) signed the LEARNS Act, which prohibits "teaching that would indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory [CRT]" or "that conflict with the principle of equal protection under the law." The law, however, explicitly allows teaching the history of racism and "public policy issues of the day and related ideas that individuals may find unwelcome, disagreeable, or offensive." The Arkansas DOE did not explain what in the AP African American Studies course constitutes prohibited indoctrination.
The College Board, which has spent a decade developing the AP African American Studies curriculum, describes it as "an evidence-based introduction to African American studies" that "reaches into a variety of fields—literature, the arts and humanities, political science, geography, and science—to explore the vital contributions and experiences of African Americans."
The first signs of trouble for AP African American Studies in Arkansas were reported over the weekend by the Arkansas Times. According to the Arkansas Times, "[a]n official from the Arkansas [DOE] reportedly alerted high school teachers by phone on Friday that the class would not be recognized for course credit by the state in the 2023-24 school year." The decision by the Arkansas DOE to directly contact teachers — bypassing school district officials, principals, and other administrators — is highly unusual. The teachers reportedly were told they could continue to offer AP African American Studies, but it would not count toward graduation requirements, would not be graded on a 5.0 scale like other AP courses, and the state would not pay the $90 fee for students to take the AP test.
But Mundell's statements to Popular Information on Monday raise questions about whether any Arkansas school can still offer AP African American Studies. Mundell warned that anyone who teaches the course would be "at risk of violating Arkansas law."
Some high schools in Arkansas, including Central High in Little Rock, offered AP African American Studies as part of a pilot program last year before the LEARNS Act was in effect. More high schools, including North Little Rock High School, the North Little Rock Center for Excellence charter high school, and Jacksonville High School, were planning to offer the course this year.
Mundell also told Popular Information that the Arkansas DOE was concerned that the AP African American Studies course would not be recognized for college credit. But, according to the College Board, more than 200 colleges and universities have already decided to award credit for AP African American Studies. The Arkansas Times reports that this includes the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, the state's flagship public university.
Mundell noted that other AP courses, including AP European History, were approved and vetted for Arkansas schools.
“This decision is a shameful and bigoted political stunt that will directly hurt our students and reinforce unfortunate stereotypes about Arkansas,” Little Rock School District Board member Ali Noland told Popular Information. "The Arkansas Department of Education’s statement asserting that this course could put teachers at risk of violating Arkansas law is false, and I am extremely angry that the State would make direct threats against educators who are simply doing their job teaching a course that has already been approved by the prestigious College Board, accepted for credit many colleges and universities, and was taught in Arkansas public schools last year."
The College Board, in a statement to Popular Information, noted one of the Arkansas high schools influenced by the state DOE's decision is featured in the course. "Six schools [Arkansas] were slated to participate in this second year of the pilot of this transformative course. Among them is Central High School, a site vital to the country’s civil rights movement, and its Little Rock 9 and their role in public school desegregation efforts are covered in the class," The College Board said. "On this first day of school, we share in their surprise, confusion, and disappointment at this new guidance that the course won’t count toward graduation credits or weighted the same as other AP courses offered in the state…. Arkansas teachers and students have done extraordinary classroom work in AP African American Studies that has been celebrated in local, regional and national media, and their excellent work should be allowed to continue this school year."
The Florida experience
Arkansas is following in Florida's footsteps. Beginning in July 2022, the Florida Department of Education has objected to the content of the AP African American Studies course. On September 23, 2022, the Florida Department of Education "issued a Memo to [the] College Board stating the AP African American Studies course could not be added to the Course Code Directory without revisions." In a January 12, 2023 letter, the DeSantis administration said that AP African American Studies is “inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.” DeSantis accused the College Board of pushing a “political agenda” because it touched on topics like queer studies and reparations.
In February, the College Board released a revised curriculum that addressed nearly all of the objections raised by the DeSantis administration. The new curriculum, for instance, eliminates lessons on Black Lives Matter, the case for reparations, and queer studies — all topics listed as “concerns” by DeSantis officials. Previously a required part of the course framework, these topics now appear in a list of suggested research topics for students that “can be refined by states and districts.”
In the introduction to the revised framework, the College Board explained it “opposes indoctrination” and notes that "AP students are not required to feel certain ways about themselves or the course content” — echoing talking points used by DeSantis and other conservatives.
Who is Jacob Oliva?
It's not a surprise that Arkansas is charting a similar course to Florida. On December 29, 2022, Sanders nominated Jacob Oliva, “a key education leader for Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida,” to be Arkansas’ Secretary of Education.
At the Florida Department of Education, Oliva served as senior chancellor, where he was “a leader implementing Governor DeSantis’ parental rights policies and bold education reforms.” His duties included reviewing district-wide LGBTQ support guides and issuing warning letters to school districts over their LGBTQ and racial equity policies.
Oliva also defended Florida’s ban on CRT in schools, claiming that CRT puts people in two categories — ”you’re either an oppressor or that you’ve been oppressed based on your ethnicity.” As many experts have pointed out, however, this description of CRT is a distortion of the framework. CRT is about how structures — not individuals — perpetuate racial inequality.
Oliva is also under investigation by federal authorities over his role in a bid-rigging scheme that “attempt[ed] to steer a multimillion-dollar contract to a politically connected company with ties to DeSantis’ former education commissioner, Richard Corcoran.”
In Arkansas, Oliva has the power to review materials that “would indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as CRT” thanks to an executive order signed by Sanders in January 2023. Titled the “Executive Order to Prohibit Indoctrination and Critical Race Theory in Schools,” the order gives Oliva the ability to “amend, annul, or alter” rules, regulations, or materials found in violation.
In June, Oliva spoke at a conference hosted by the right-wing parent group Moms for Liberty. This week, Oliva told 40/29 News that AP African American Studies “could potentially run afoul” of Sanders’ Executive Order, the LEARNS Act, and other Arkansas laws.