After a weekend of staying mum on its last-minute decision to pull AP African American Studies from the state’s official offerings, the Arkansas Department of Education issued a statement Monday saying the course may violate the LEARNS Act, the new education law passed by the state legislature this spring.
“The department encourages the teaching of all American history and supports rigorous courses not based on opinions or indoctrination,” the education department said.
The department went on to give background on the decision, suggesting that teachers who offer this class may be breaking the law.
“Arkansas law contains provisions regarding prohibited topics. Without clarity, we cannot approve a pilot that may unintentionally put a teacher at risk of violating Arkansas law,” the statement says.
Monday’s statement from the Arkansas Department of Education will certainly keep the culture war flames burning. Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders‘ administration continues targeting classes and policies that honor multiculturalism and acceptance of traditionally marginalized groups.
Sanders issued an executive order in her early days in office requiring that all Arkansas public school curricula be scrubbed of “indoctrination” and “critical race theory,” two nebulous terms with slippery definitions but the power to rile conservative voters. Section 16 of the Arkansas LEARNS Act, Sanders’ signature legislation, takes aim at supposed indoctrination and critical race theory in public schools. (Click here to see that specific section of the 145-page law.)
Teachers of AP African American Studies were launched into confusion Friday when they reportedly began receiving phone calls from a state education official alerting them that the class would be pulled from the state’s list of courses recognized for credit in the 2023-24 school year. That meant the state would not cover testing fees associated with the course, nor would the class count toward core graduation requirements.
On its website, the Arkansas Department of Education says they have been working to scour Arkansas classrooms of any lessons that “promote teaching that would indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory, otherwise known as ‘CRT,’ that conflict with the principle of equal protection under the law or encourage students to discriminate against someone based on the individual’s color, creed, race, ethnicity, sex, age, marital status, familial status, disability, religion, national origin, or any other characteristic protected by federal or state law.”
The department statement also notes that the course is still in a pilot phase: “Since the launch of the pilot, College Board has worked directly with schools that choose to participate; however, an exam was not offered to students during the 2022-2023 school year, and the course may not articulate into college credit.”
This statement is false, since more than 200 colleges and universities, including the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, have already said they plan to accept AP African American Studies for credit when students take the course’s first AP exam next spring.
Many Arkansas public schools offer myriad AP courses that may or may not translate into college credit. That’s because colleges and universities set their own policies on which classes to accept for college credit. The only AP course Arkansas is cutting on this basis so far, however, is AP African American Studies.
Here’s the full statement from the education department:
“The department encourages the teaching of all American history and supports rigorous courses not based on opinions or indoctrination.”
The AP African American Studies pilot course is not a history course and is a pilot that is still undergoing major revisions. Arkansas law contains provisions regarding prohibited topics. Without clarity, we cannot approve a pilot that may unintentionally put a teacher at risk of violating Arkansas law.
Since the launch of the pilot, College Board has worked directly with schools that choose to participate; however, an exam was not offered to students during the 2022-2023 school year, and the course may not articulate into college credit.
As a result, the pilot may not meet graduation requirements and does not comply with the rules of the department’s AP program like other vetted courses, such as AP European History, United States History, and World History: Modern.
Arkansas has an African American History course listed in the ADE Course Code Management System for 2023-2024. It is not an AP course, but students who complete the course are eligible for high school credit. We are working with districts regarding an honors version of this course so students can benefit from a rigorous experience.
The statement, sent on the first day of school for most public schools in the state and likely after some students had already taken their seats in the AP African American Studies class they’d signed up for, came after a weekend of official silence about the highly disruptive and controversial last-minute move. In a phone call over the weekend, Arkansas Secretary of Education Jacob Oliva reportedly offered Little Rock School District Superintendent Jermall Wright reasoning far different from what was conveyed in Monday’s official statement.
Today’s statement suggests the state may not only refuse to count the class toward graduation credits but might consider it illegal, leaving schools that planned to offer the course scrambling to figure out the path forward.
A legal fight is likely. Advocates pushing to keep AP African American Studies on offer in Arkansas schools note that Section 16 of the Arkansas LEARNS Act specifically says nothing in the law should prohibit teaching of controversial topics, including “ideas and the history of … concepts” such as racism and discrimination, or “public policy issues of the day and related ideas that individuals may find unwelcome, disagreeable or offensive.”
Little Rock School District Board member Ali Noland, an attorney representing public education advocates suing the state over the constitutionality of the LEARNS Act, pushed back immediately on the state’s explanation. (Noland is a frequent contributor to the Arkansas Times.)
“This decision is a shameful and bigoted political stunt that will directly hurt our students and reinforce unfortunate stereotypes about Arkansas,” Noland said.
“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. Yet again, our state government is manufacturing a culture war at the expense of our students.”
The Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus said it was “outraged” by the state’s decision. “The exclusion defunds and discredits the course, preventing college credit qualification and the testing fee for students,” the group said in a statement. Its chairman, state Rep. Jay Richardson (D-Fort Smith) said he plans to fight back:
This further perpetuates the marginalization of African Americans and denies all students the opportunity to learn about the unique history and experiences of our community. … We are committed to doing all we can to challenge this discriminatory decision and ensure that African American Studies is available for AP credit and a valued option in Arkansas public schools.
The NAACP also released a statement Monday:
The Arkansas State Conference of the NAACP is appalled at the recent decision of
Arkansas Department of Education to make a hasteful decision at the final hour to “do away with” AP African American Studies. Less than 48 hours before the first day of school, districts have to scramble to come up with a plan. … This decision is reprehensible and an attack on our civil rights as well as the advancement of students of color in Arkansas.