At least three Virginia school districts plan to offer the pilot Advanced Placement African American studies course next school year amid scrutiny from officials in several states, including Gov. Glenn Youngkin, over the course’s teachings on race.
The course has become the center of a political firestorm since Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) rejected the course, calling it “woke” and an example of progressive “indoctrination.” In the weeks that followed, the College Board, which oversees AP courses, announced revisions to the pilot, including the elimination of lessons on Black Lives Matter and reparations. The nonprofit organization has said the topics are not barred from the course, and the revisions were not a response to the Florida criticisms.
The Washington Post found that of the at least 18 states that have laws or policies that restrict the teaching of race, four, including Virginia, said they would be also be reviewing the course. Youngkin (R) directed state education officials to determine whether the course conflicts with executive order one, the governor’s first-day action that forbids teaching “inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory,” an academic framework for examining the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism. Critical race theory has become a catchall term that many GOP politicians have used to describe various kinds of lessons about race and racism they find objectionable.
Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said the review was ongoing and did not offer a timeline of when it would be completed.
The governor’s review was met with immediate backlash from some state leaders, who said Youngkin was undermining the course.
Four Fairfax County School Board members said in a letter to the governor that Virginia has been the backdrop for key moments of African American history, and that the state has “a moral obligation” to teach its students a complete history.
“This action follows a disturbing national trend of attempts to restrict teaching and learning. From banning books to baseless attacks on hard working educators, public education faces many attacks, and this action leaves no doubt that those threats have reached Virginia,” school board member Stella Pekarsky said in a statement.
Virginia Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera said in an email that the review is standard for all policies, programs, training and curriculums “to ensure that our students are being taught how to think, and not what to think.”
Guidera said they’re hoping the College Board’s revisions to the pilot will address “national concerns” about the course and the state can offer it.
“Neither Governor Youngkin nor I will apologize for having high expectations and taking the time to ensure that our course offerings prepare every Virginia student for success in life,” Guidera said.
But Youngkin’s review will determine only whether the class can count toward a required history credit needed for graduation in Virginia schools. Regardless of the outcome of the review, local school divisions will still have the option to offer the course as an elective, according to an education department spokesperson.
The Washington Post asked Virginia’s school divisions whether they planned to offer the new AP course once approved by the College Board, and whether the state’s review would impact that decision.
No school divisions said their schools participated in this year’s initial pilot. In Fairfax County, the state’s largest school division, officials said they are planning to offer the course in Chantilly, Fairfax, Hayfield, McLean, South County, Westfield, West Potomac and Woodson high schools, but it will depend on student enrollment. In Arlington, Wakefield and Washington-Liberty high schools will offer the course next year, along with Caroline High School in Caroline County.
Most of the 32 districts that responded said it was too soon to decide whether the course will be offered. The president of a coalition for about 80 rural school systems said most of those districts would likely not offer the course because AP course offerings are already limited.
A spokesperson for Manassas City Public Schools, which represents about 2,200 high school students, said Osbourn High School plans to submit the course request to the school system’s director of instruction for approval in the fall, with hopes to offer it during the 2024-2025 school year.
Prince William County Public Schools, which represents 15 high schools and is the second-largest school district in the state, also plans to offer the course then, pending school board approval.
Proponents of the course said that students shouldn’t have to decide whether to use one of their few elective credits on the course when it could count toward a graduation requirement. Virginia students need four electives to graduate with a standard diploma and three electives for an advanced studies diploma.
“It disincentivizes students from learning about a certain kind of history,” said Fairfax County School Board member Rachna Sizemore Heizer, who signed the letter to the governor.
Some school districts, like Culpeper County Public Schools, said they didn’t plan to offer the AP course because they already offer the state’s African American History elective course.
“The thought was that it would be of greater interest to a wider group of students than just AP students,” spokesperson Laura Hoover said in an email.
The existing elective course was developed in 2019 under Youngkin’s predecessor Gov. Ralph Northam (D), with the formation of the African American History Education Commission, designed to examine the teaching of African American history in Virginia’s public schools. The state-developed course opened widely to students in 2021 and explores talking about race and racism and modern Black America.
In Winchester City Public Schools, the course is one of the most popular electives, often with a waitlist, a spokesperson said. In Franklin County, the course has been successful in part because of a dedicated and engaging teacher.
Some critics of Youngkin’s review said the governor was singling out the AP African American studies course. Last year, in response to Youngkin’s executive order, the education department reviewed and rescinded a wide range of policies, memos and programs established to further diversity, equity and inclusion. Porter, Youngkin’s spokeswoman, did not answer questions about whether the state African American History elective or other AP history courses were included in that review.
“I don’t know why he’s not looking at a review of all AP,” said Sizemore Heizer, of the Fairfax County School Board. “If he’s really concerned about it, why isn’t he looking at all of it.”
Many school divisions said they determine course offerings based on student interest and teacher availability.
In some smaller and rural school divisions where there is less interest in AP classes, the college-level courses aren’t offered at all — like in Mecklenburg County Public Schools, a division on the southern border of Virginia that includes about 4,000 K-12 students.
“Instead, we have created a strong partnership with the local community college and offer a significant number of dual enrollment classes,” Superintendent Paul Nichols said in an email.
Keith Perrigan, superintendent of Bristol Virginia Public Schools and president of the Coalition of Small and Rural Schools of Virginia, said his school district has a limited AP offering, and many of the 80 divisions in the coalition are likely in a similar position.
Nat Malkus, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, said that access to those courses for smaller school divisions is a problem across the country which poses a wider issue of access than what often gets politically debated.
“Maybe the more important reason than the political arguments is that the majority of kids won’t have access to this course or the more mainstream courses like AP Calculus,” he said, “which can be pretty valuable signifiers on a college application.”