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Arkansas Ed secretary raises concerns, requests AP African American coursework

Education Secretary Jacob Oliva speaks to superintendents about the LEARNS Act during a meeting at the Northwest Arkansas Education Service Cooperative on Mar. 10, 2023.
Antoinette Grajeda
/
Arkansas Advocate
Education Secretary Jacob Oliva speaks to superintendents about the LEARNS Act during a meeting at the Northwest Arkansas Education Service Cooperative on Mar. 10, 2023.

Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva wrote to leaders of six Arkansas schools on Monday with the most specific concerns yet about the AP African American Studies course.

The letter — sent to the handful of schools that plan to continue offering the pilot course — also asks the schools to submit course materials to the Department of Education for review by Sept. 8 and to pledge the curriculum will not violate Arkansas’ new law against “indoctrination and Critical Race Theory” in public schools.

“Given some of the themes included in the pilot, including ‘intersections of identity’ and ‘resistance and resilience,’ the Department is concerned the pilot may not comply with Arkansas law, which does not permit teaching that would indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as Critical Race Theory (CRT),” Oliva wrote.

Contention over the course, which offers high school students an opportunity to earn college credit, began Aug. 11 when the Education Department revoked its approval of the course, meaning it will not count toward students’ graduation requirements.

Oliva and the department cited a variety of reasons over the last week, including that the pilot nature of the program prevented it from complying with state rules, that the course was listed in error the year before and the concerns about indoctrination and CRT repeated in Monday’s letter.

They have also suggested that students may take the department-approved African American history course, which is not an AP class. AP classes can translate into college credit, as they are considered college-level courses.

Still, the six schools — Central High School and eStem High School in Little Rock; the Academies at Jonesboro High School; Jacksonville High School; and two schools in the North Little Rock School District — decided to continue offering the course as an elective.

Because the course is not department-approved, Oliva instructed the districts to “submit all materials, including but not limited to the syllabus, textbooks, teacher resources, student resources, rubrics, and training materials, to the Department” by Sept. 8 “to assist public school employees, representatives, and guest speakers at your district in complying with the law.”

He highlighted two themes from the College Board’s course framework that could violate Arkansas’ prohibition on indoctrination and CRT: “intersections of identity” and “resistance and resilience.”

On the course theme of “intersections of identity, the College Board’s framework states:

“The course “examines the interplay of distinct categories of identity (such as race, ethnicity, class, gender, region, religion, and ability) with each other and within a society. Various categories of identity are emphasized throughout the course. Although different identities vary in prominence in the given units, students should develop the habit of thinking about identity as both a unified concept and intersectional framework and consider how different aspects of identity impact their experience.”

On “resistance and resilience”:

“Intellectual distinctions and differences informed approaches to resisting oppression and building society. These approaches will be examined throughout the course, and it is important that students can recognize the patterns of continuity and change that emerges over time. Encourage students to examine the many forms of resistance that demonstrate how Black people asserted their agency and influenced their cultural environments. Whether it be slave rebellions or the formation of Women’s Clubs in the 20th century, varied forms of resistance and political engagement figure prominently across the units as do notions of resilience — not only in the face of violence and oppression — but in structures of social interaction and ways of community formation.”

CRT has become a cultural flashpoint in recent years. There isn’t an agreed-upon definition, but it is a lens through which mostly academics study race and how systemic racism is embedded in the fabric of society, including the law, public policies and institutions.

“Intersectionality,” or how different racial, gender, class or other identities intersect to create unique conditions for discrimination or advantage, is related to and often a component of CRT.

It is mainly studied only in college- and graduate-level courses, but prominent Republicans, like Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have been outspoken about keeping CRT out of public K-12 education.

Indeed, an executive order against CRT was among Sanders’ first actions on the day she was inaugurated, and Florida became the first state to ban AP African American Studies in January. Florida has since also effectively banned an AP Psychology course, the College Board noted this month.

AP African American Studies was piloted in 60 schools last year, including two in Arkansas. The pilot expands to hundreds of additional high schools this year, with students taking the first AP exams in the spring of 2024. All schools can begin offering the course in the 2024-25 academic year.

Deputy Editor of Arkansas Advocate, which is part of States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization, supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The Advocate retains full editorial independence.