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More states scrutinizing AP Black studies after Florida complaints

Demonstrators protest Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s criticism of an Advanced Placement course on African American studies as they stand outside the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee on Wednesday. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
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At least four more states will review the new Advanced Placement African American studies course to see if it conflicts with their policies or laws restricting the teaching of race, an indication that the controversy swirling around the class in Florida could spiral.

Officials in Arkansas, Virginia, North Dakota and Mississippi said they had questions and planned reviews before deciding whether the new class may be taught in their classrooms. Another four states said no review was planned, but suggested that could change.

“I haven’t seen the course content for this particular course but just from reading certain news reports there are allegations that it contains elements of critical race theory,” said Dale Wetzel, spokesman for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. “So we’re going to need to look at it. We don’t want to assign a course code to something that violates state law.”

The course, which covers a wide range of Black history and cultural topics, is being piloted in about 60 classrooms nationwide this year. The pilot will continue this fall, and the class will be widely available in fall 2024 — unless states block their schools from offering it. In many states, no class can count toward graduation unless it is granted a state-issued course code.

Scholars say the course offers high school students a deep dive into an essential part of the American experience, one mostly confined to college campuses until now. Major topic areas include the African diaspora; freedom, enslavement and resistance; and movements and debates, including the civil rights movement and discussions of identity and culture.

But critics contend that inclusion of political topics, along with the use of certain buzzwords, render the class ripe for indoctrination. The course’s arrival at this moment of supercharged political battles over education has put it into the crosshairs of Republicans who in recent years have subjected schools to an extraordinary degree of scrutiny.

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“This is now a political football,” said Joshua Myers, an associate professor of Africana Studies at Howard University who helped develop the course framework. He said no one should be surprised that more states are now examining the class.

In a statement, College Board spokesman Jerome White declined to comment, saying the organization was “just beginning” the process of requesting course codes given that the class will still be in the pilot phase until fall 2024.

At least 18 states, including Florida, have laws or policies that restrict the teaching of race. Typical restrictions include barring teachers from suggesting the United States is a racist country or elevating one race or gender over another, as well as outlawing “indoctrination” and teaching of critical race theory, an academic construct that holds systemic racism is baked into American law and institutions.

The debate over AP African American studies erupted after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and his education department said a pilot version of the course violated state law. DeSantis, a potential presidential candidate who has leaned heavily into education culture war topics, called the class “woke” and an example of progressive “indoctrination.”

After Florida’s criticism, the College Board announced revisions including the elimination of lessons on Black Lives Matter and reparations, angering many on the left who read the edits as a capitulation. The nonprofit organization has said the topics are not barred from the course, and the revisions were not a response to the Florida criticisms. At the same time, Florida has not yet said if the changes are sufficient to answer their objections.

The Washington Post contacted the other 17 states with laws governing the teaching of race to ask how many would allow local school districts to offer the class. Fourteen states replied.

One state, Tennessee, approved the course last summer and said no review is planned, though a spokesman said that could change if lawmakers intervene or parents complain. “Anything could be challenged at any time,” he said.

Five states said decisions about what classes to offer are made by local school districts. And four states said they are conducting a state-level review of the course in light of the objections raised by DeSantis and others.

In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) has asked state education officials to examine the class to determine whether it conflicts with his previous executive order forbidding certain ways of teaching about race, according to spokeswoman Macaulay Porter. On Youngkin’s first day in office last year, he issued an executive order that bars teachers from teaching “inherently divisive concepts, including concepts or ideas related to Critical Race Theory.”

Porter said Youngkin acted after becoming aware of “numerous reports about draft course content.” She declined to share a timeline for the review, but said that it has already begun.

The results of that review will determine whether the class can count toward credit needed for graduation in Virginia schools.

In Arkansas, newly inaugurated Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) issued an executive order on her first day in office last month directing a review of rules and policies that “promote teaching that would indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as CRT.”

Given that directive, the state has been in touch with the College Board to get more information about the African American studies course, said Kimberly Mundell, a spokeswoman for the state’s education department. “We will review the information, including the recent changes, and assess the course at the end of this year’s pilot to ensure students are taught factual history and that participation articulates into college credit that is beneficial to students,” she said.

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A spokesperson for Mississippi’s education agency also said a review would be done to make sure the course was in compliance with state law and policies.

And in North Dakota, Wetzel, the spokesman for the education department, noted the legislature is considering additional bills this session governing the teaching of topics including race. He said the state will need to examine the course to see if it is at odds with any such laws.

“We certainly don’t have any interest in deterring instruction on African American studies. But we do have an interest in making sure this doesn’t violate what the legislature wants,” he said.

The skepticism is not shared by teachers who are participating in this year’s pilot program. That includes Ruthie Walls, a veteran social studies teacher at Little Rock Central High, where in 1957 a mob of more than 1,000 White protesters tried to block the arrival of nine Black students desegregating the Arkansas school.

“AP African American Studies does not violate [the governor’s] executive order by any stretch of the imagination,” Walls told Tiger News Online, the school’s student newspaper. “I just teach history. I don’t add anything, I don’t take anything away. History will stand by itself.”

She said the course has proven popular, enrolling 27 students — meaning every seat is filled and four more perched on the sides. “There was an interest, and for that, I’m really excited,” she told the school’s paper.

“It is of vital importance to teach AP African American Studies,” she wrote in a statement to The Post. “As educators our goal is to help students become well-informed, critical thinkers. The history actually helps them understand the very complex world that we live in now.”

In response to The Post’s survey, officials in five states — Kentucky, Idaho, Alabama, New Hampshire and Utah — said the decision-making on courses rests entirely in the hands of local districts. In Utah, however, a spokeswoman cautioned that local districts must take into consideration whether a course “may be in conflict with requirements set out in state statute” or regulation.

The Post found four states — Montana, Georgia, Texas and South Carolina — where no review of the AP African American studies course is currently planned, but officials have indicated it could happen at some point.

In Georgia, Education Department spokeswoman Meghan Frick said school districts will need state approval to offer the class for credit, as would be the case for any class. She said the board of education must first vote to post the course for 30 days of public comment before taking a second vote on whether to adopt it. That process has not yet begun.

Asked about the view of Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) regarding the course, spokesman Garrison Douglas wrote in a statement that Kemp believes students should “learn the full history of our state and nation but has been clear in his opposition to our classrooms being used to indoctrinate our children.” Douglas added that Kemp was “proud” to sign a law last April prohibiting schools from teaching “divisive concepts” including certain lessons about race.

In Montana, Office of Public Instruction spokesman Brian O’Leary said that the course is not currently available in his state. To earn necessary state approval, he said, the class “would have to align with state content standards,” as well as be selected by a local school district.

O’Leary pointed to a 2021 25-page opinion by Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen that prohibits certain ways of talking about race in the classroom, including asking students to reflect on racial privilege.

That opinion “may impact the ability of a Montana school to offer the Advanced Placement African-American Studies course,” O’Leary wrote. Still, he added that “at this point there are no plans for review” of the class.

In South Carolina, a spokesperson for the Education Department wrote in a statement that, although it was up to local school districts to decide whether to participate in the pilot of the AP course, going forward Superintendent of Education Ellen Weaver “is fully committed to ensuring South Carolina students are taught accurate history while rejecting divisive political theories that are clearly prohibited by state law and have no place in our schools.”