A ‘political issue’: Arkansas becomes the latest state to target AP African American Studies

Front-facing photograph of old school buildling with stairs in front and lettering reading "Little Rock Central High School"

Little Rock Central High School is one of six Arkansas schools offering AP African American History for local credit only after the state's Department of Education decided it would not count towards graduation credit. (Photo by Natalie Demaree, Facing South)

Two days before the first day of school, the Arkansas Department of Education sent the state’s educators into a scramble with a last-minute decision that Advanced Placement African American Studies would not count towards graduation credit.

The state’s Department of Education said its Aug. 11 decision was based on its interpretation of the LEARNS Act — Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ (R-Ark.) controversial signature piece of legislation, signed into law in March. The legislation, which created a school voucher program, increased pay for teachers, and set a new state literacy standard, also required the state’s Department of Education to review and identify materials that would “indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory,” and annul or amend those materials.

Arkansas is the latest in a string of states, including several in the South, who have placed AP African American history courses under review or banned them entirely. As of June 2023, 20 states have approved or proposed legislation limiting the way race is taught in schools, according to an analysis by EducationWeek.

In 2022, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) signed the Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees Act, or the Stop W.O.K.E. Act, which restricts how K–12 schools discuss race and racism, among other limitations on workplace training or educational material related to race and gender. In his defense of the act, DeSantis has invoked critical race theory, an academic framework that understands racism as a systemic issue in American society. Critical race theory has often been used by GOP officials as a political flashpoint to refer to any race-related education. Despite DeSantis’s claims, several public school districts in the state have said CRT was never taught in K-12 schools. 

Earlier this year, the Florida Department of Education also banned the AP African American History course from Florida schools for violating Florida law, deeming that it “significantly lacks educational value,” according to a January 12 letter to the College Board.

Educators and academics have argued that laws like these restrict candid conversations about race and racism in America. Some teachers have faced consequences — losing jobs in certain cases — for teaching about race and racism. In South Carolina, an English teacher was reported for teaching a book about race, and in Texas, a principal was put on paid administrative leave and eventually resigned after being accused of teaching critical race theory.

Historically, public school curriculums in many Southern states have been shaped by Confederate and conservative political ideologies in the 19th and 20th centuries. Since the end of Reconstruction, Lost Cause propaganda has appeared in state standards and textbooks.

Abul Pitre, professor and chair of Africana Studies at San Francisco State University, the longest established department of its kind in the country, said the debate against critical race theory, predominantly taking place in public schools, uses critical race theory as a “smokescreen” when it is really attacking Black studies as a whole.

“You leave [Black people] out of the curriculum, you leave their stories out, you leave their histories out,” he said. “When you begin to do that, you essentially erase that population of people.”

State’s timing questioned

The timing of the decision by the Arkansas Department of Education to not count AP African American Studies for credit sparked confusion among some educators, who questioned why a curriculum change had not been brought during the summer months.

The Arkansas Department of Education visited Little Rock Central High School in January to review the plans for the course, said April Reisma, president of the Arkansas Educators Association.

“Nothing was said,” Reisma told Facing South. “Everything seemed to be fine.”

But just before the start of the semester, the state pulled the rug out from under teachers. The Arkansas Department of Education presented schools with two options, one educator told Facing South: They could either pivot to a state-approved African American History course or offer the AP course as an elective only.

The course framework for AP African American Studies outlines four themes students will learn, based on what African American Studies professors, researchers, and teachers agree should be in an introductory, college-level course in the field. Those themes include migration and the African diaspora; intersections of identity; creativity, expression, and the arts; and resistance and resilience.

“It was not a great feeling at all,” said Jeremy Owoh, superintendent of the Jacksonville Pulaski North School District, of the state’s decision. His school district serves over 4,000 students in central Arkansas. “It definitely caused a lot of moving parts to start happening.”

Owoh said thirty-five students were registered for the class at Jacksonville High School, the only high school in the district.

All six Arkansas schools piloting the course this year — Little Rock Central High School, North Little Rock High School, North Little Rock Center of Excellence, Jacksonville High School, The Academies at Jonesboro High School and eStem Charter High School — are still offering the Advanced Placement course for local credit. This means that while the course will not count toward the history credit required by the state, it will count toward elective credit as required by local school districts in Arkansas.

But in a letter sent Aug. 21, Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva told the schools still offering the course to send materials to the state Education Department for review. Oliva, who formerly worked as senior chancellor in the Florida Department of Education under DeSantis, has been a key figure in the Arkansas controversy. In his letter, Oliva pointed to themes in the class’s framework such as “‘intersections of identity’ and ‘resistance and resilience’” that “may not comply with Arkansas law.”

C.C. Smith, who teaches AP African American Studies to a class of 11 at The Academies at Jonesboro High School, called the state’s decision to drop the AP course a “political issue.”

Smith has worked at Jonesboro High School for 20 years, and this year marks his second year teaching the pilot AP course. When Smith’s school district was presented with the curriculum, they asked him to teach the course since he had already been teaching a general African American History class, he said.

Smith first found out about the Department of Education’s decision to not count the class for credit in a group message with his principal and other school counselors on the Friday before school. However, Smith said he wasn’t too concerned about the decision at the time.

“I’m giving the AP people credit,” said Smith. “We got their curriculum, and the way they set it out is going to be pretty hard for anybody to find indoctrination.”

Smith said the main difference between his general African American Studies course and the AP course is the opportunity for students to learn from primary sources rather than a textbook.

“They get a chance to see documents that highlight the abolitionist movement,” Smith said. “They get to see documents that highlight the long civil rights movement. They get to see songs and poems that help break down the struggles that African Americans had.”

Arkansas educators are now awaiting information from a second review of curriculum by the Arkansas Department of Education. Materials were due for submission on Sep. 8.

When asked what schools can expect from the review, Kimberly Mundell, director of communications at the Arkansas Department of Education, said the department would review submitted materials before providing feedback. She did not address questions from Facing South about the timing of the decision.

Still, Owoh, the superintendent of Jacksonville Pulaski North Schools, remains optimistic of what’s to come from the second curriculum review.

“I hope that what comes from it is that there’s a professional conversation or educational conversation — dialogue between us and the state — about their concerns about certain aspects of the course and how they’re delivered versus banning the entire course,” he said.

Other educators, like Reisma, president of the Arkansas Educators Association, are concerned that this decision is part of a much larger trend.

“There's definitely a movement going through the states, and I don't want it to happen here in Arkansas,” said Reisma.