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‘Unfathomable’: Florida parents, students blast DeSantis idea to nix APs

Families may pay more for college without the classes and fall short when they seek admission to competitive schools

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), above in West Palm Beach, wants to cut Advanced Placement classes. (Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press)
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As news zipped across Florida that the governor had threatened to eliminate Advanced Placement classes, some parents discussed moving out of the state to protect their children’s chances at a good education. And high school students, some of them enrolled in AP classes, tried to fathom what was happening.

Prisha Sherdiwala, a 17-year-old junior in Palm Harbor, Fla., is taking three AP classes this year to boost her GPA and to make her more attractive to college admissions officers, a strategy drummed into her by her school counselor. But Sherdiwala has also grown to love the strenuous environment of her AP English Literature, Chemistry and Calculus courses, despite the hours of homework each week.

“In the APs, I am surrounded by other people who enjoy the rigor,” Sherdiwala said. “And I tend to have teachers that are really well-versed in what they are teaching.” What will happen, she wants to know, if all of that goes away her senior year?

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) warned Tuesday that he may withdraw state support for AP programs, intensifying his ongoing conflict with the College Board, which oversees all AP classes, including an African American studies course the DeSantis administration says leans left and lacks “educational value.” Earlier this month, the College Board said it was revising the course to eliminate lessons on Black Lives Matter and the reparations movement.

After the College Board said Florida’s criticism of its AP African American studies course amounted to “slander,” DeSantis suggested his state might drop AP classes from its schools. Instead, he said, schools could expand alternatives, such as the International Baccalaureate and Cambridge Assessment programs, which, like AP classes, permit students to earn college credit by passing an exam.

It remains unclear what the governor can do to nix AP classes, although he may be able to halt Florida’s practice of paying AP exam fees ($97 per test) for public school students. If DeSantis follows through, hundreds of thousands of students will be affected: Over 199,000 Florida students took AP classes in the 2020-2021 school year, The Washington Post has reported, and roughly 366,000 AP tests were administered statewide at the end of that year.

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The stakes are high for Florida families, both financially and in terms of their children’s competitiveness during college applications. Scores of three and above on the five-point AP test scale help students qualify for college credit, lowering the price of a bachelor’s degree. Moreover, AP courses are seen by college admissions officers as a marker of ambition, intelligence and industriousness.

“Parents in this state need to be paying attention to this threat,” said Katie Hathaway, a Jacksonville parent whose son will enter high school next year. “I want him and every student in the state to have access to these valuable courses with college credit opportunities.”

The suggestion from DeSantis has prompted strong backlash from national education leaders. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that DeSantis is placing his political aspirations ahead of students. DeSantis, a possible contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, has won acclaim in conservative circles for executive actions and legislation limiting discussion of race and gender in schools.

“AP classes have become an avenue for American students to get a head start to college,” Weingarten said. “The alternatives floated by DeSantis, the International Baccalaureate and Cambridge Assessment, don’t provide the same breadth of course offerings and are not widely accepted by other colleges and universities.”

Asked about critiques of the stance DeSantis has taken on AP classes, press secretary Bryan Griffin referred to his previous remarks on the subject. Griffin noted that DeSantis had promised at his Tuesday news conference that Florida students would still have a chance to shine academically should AP courses go away. “I don’t think anyone should be concerned about, somehow, our high school students not having an opportunity for” college credit in high school, the governor said. “They absolutely will. And it is just a matter of what is the best way to do it.”

Meanwhile, Floridians are reeling. Colleen Hamilton, a 64-year-old Clearwater resident whose two children both attended Florida public schools, thought of her daughter when she read what DeSantis said about AP courses. She recalled how the girl, now 25, took so many AP classes in high school that she was able to shave off a year and a half of college courses. Her daughter used the extra time to earn dual degrees in four years.

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Her daughter’s AP prowess saved the family “enormous amounts of money,” Hamilton said, partly because she earned college credit and partly because the girl’s rigorous AP schedule helped her win a full scholarship to Florida State University. Hamilton predicted the elimination of AP offerings would cause parents statewide to lose out on thousands of dollars in college savings.

“It terrifies me that DeSantis is threatening to eliminate AP classes after seeing how much it benefited my daughter’s education,” Hamilton said. “It is truly horrifying to be a resident of Florida right now.” Hamilton is “heavily weighing” whether to encourage her 2-year-old granddaughter’s father to move his family out of Florida before the girl reaches school age, she said.

Stephana Ferrell, a 40-year-old mother in Orange County, is having similar thoughts of escape. Ferrell, a former photographer who put her business on pause to help lead Florida Freedom to Read, a nonprofit organization that fights school book challenges and bans in the state, has two children enrolled in public elementary school. Ferrell has long hoped her children would take AP classes.

“My number one concern as a parent right now is that my kids will be cut off from additional information about the world,” she said. “Will they be able to learn beyond what our state is going to allow them to know?” Ferrell said she and her husband are waiting to see how DeSantis fares in the 2024 presidential election before making a final decision on moving from Florida, where their family lives.

More than 100 miles away in Palm Harbor, high school senior Laura Kopec has spent the week reflecting on what AP classes have meant to her. She is convinced her 11 AP credits, and subsequent scores of fours and fives on all her AP exams, will help her stand out from the crop of college applicants this year, perhaps scoring her the spot she covets at Georgetown University, where she aims to earn a degree in international relations.

But no matter how that turns out, Kopec will have gained from her AP experience, she said. It was her “very, very in-depth” AP Spanish and World History courses, Kopec said, that inspired her desire to pursue a career in international law and human rights. Kopec is having trouble envisioning a world in which other Florida students lack those kinds of opportunities. “It is unfathomable,” she said. “I hope it doesn’t happen.”