Arkansas Schools Defy State’s AP African American Studies Limits

Six schools in Arkansas are moving forward with the course despite the state's opposition, offering local credit instead of state.
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Published on August 25, 2023
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  • The Arkansas LEARNS Act bans teaching critical race theory, and state officials say AP African American Studies could violate that law.
  • Days before the start of the school year, the Arkansas Department of Education announced AP African American Studies is no longer a state-approved course.
  • A handful of high schools will offer the course as a local elective credit.
  • Arkansas will not cover the cost of the Advanced Placement exam required for college credit, but schools will.

Six decades ago, the first nine African American Little Rock Central High students — called the Little Rock Nine — stepped foot in a previously all-white high school. They were met with vitriol from the white community, who rallied against desegregation at the school.

Today, the Little Rock School District (LRSD) flag features nine stars surrounding a torch, representing the Little Rock Nine's courage. So when the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) announced it would remove AP African American Studies from its directory and nix college credit the weekend before school started, LRSD took matters into its own hands.

Michael Mason, the Little Rock School Board president, said Arkansas' history in the civil rights movement shows the course is necessary. Six schools in the district will offer the course for local elective credit, despite the state's stance.

Hundreds of schools across the country will be offering AP African American Studies. Arkansas educators planned to teach the class and were ready for the start of the school year on Aug. 15, but on Aug. 11 the ADE removed the course from its directory.

AP African American Studies is a pilot course from the College Board. The 2023-2024 school year is the second phase of the class. Last year, only 60 schools offered the course. It expanded to 700 this year. For 2024-2025, any school that can teach the course will be able to. Arkansas schools offered the course during the 2022-2023 school year.

The Arkansas LEARNS Act, signed in March, bans discussing a number of topics in schools, including critical race theory (CRT). The bill refers to CRT as indoctrination. Arkansas officials say AP African American Studies may violate this law and will no longer consider it for state credit or pay for the end-of-term exam that qualifies students for college credit.

According to the College Board, the class covers African Americans' contributions to art, politics, science, and more.

Does that sound like indoctrination? To me, it's just the history of the African American people of the United States of America, Mason told BestColleges.

The College Board told BestColleges, by email, it has received no indication that the course violates state law in Arkansas, as it does not teach CRT. The College Board went out of its way to remove any scholars or writers even associated with CRT from the course to avoid laws about indoctrination like Arkansas' law.

Mason shared the course framework:

  • Unit One: Origins of African Diaspora
  • Unit Two: Freedom, Enslavement, and Resistance
  • Unit Three: The Practice of Freedom
  • Unit Four: Movements and Debates

With five months between the signing of the bill and the start of school, Arkansans are left wondering why any issues with the course weren't addressed until the last minute.

Let's not settle for the Florida low bar of devaluing, disrespecting and withholding the AP African American Studies course from our students. And doing so the weekend before school starts! With no prior public notice, former Arkansas Sen. Joyce Elliot wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

In May, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis banned AP African American Studies from being taught in the state, claiming that it violates state law on teaching CRT and that it's historically inaccurate. Florida also took aim at AP Psychology because of its “Don't Say Gay” law, which largely prohibits gender identity and sexual orientation discussions in Florida schools.

Arkansas Communities Band Together, Protecting the Course

Despite the ADE rejecting the course, Arkansas Sen. Clarke Tucker publicly stated that the ADE told him schools can offer AP African American Studies as a local elective credit if the curriculum and materials do not violate state law.

Because of this though, the class wouldn't have a weighted influence on students' GPA like AP classes usually do. But the Little Rock School district is using its local power to give students the weighted GPA anyway.

This doesn't ensure educators' full protection, according to the College Board — officials could still claim the curriculum violates state law. But six schools are willing to take the risk:

  • The North Little Rock Center for Excellence
  • eSTEM High School
  • Jacksonville High School
  • The Academies at Jonesboro High School
  • Central High School
  • North Little Rock High School

Typically, the state covers the cost of the end-of-term exam required to receive full AP credit. However, because the ADE won't recognize the course, it won't fulfill that responsibility. Little Rock schools are offering to cover the costs instead, ensuring families don't have to pay out of pocket. AP exams (in spring 2024) cost $98 for each test taker.

Mason said he's received plenty of calls from people offering to help cover the cost for students. Tucker has also noted the community's willingness to help students pursuing their education. The Arkansas Community Foundation is even creating a scholarship fund for Little Rock students who excel in the class.

I think this is the direct pushback from the politics and cultural forces being created. We're not creating the culture wars, Mason said.

The State Still Approves of African American History

Fifty-nine Arkansas schools offer African American History, which, although it isn't an AP course, is fully approved by the state. This could be an option for students in schools no longer offering the AP course or who don't feel comfortable taking it.

The History of Arkansas Makes the Course Important

Arkansas schools aren't backing down because they believe in what the course offers.

The Little Rock School District stated that the class provides an opportunity for students to explore the complexities, contributions, and narratives that have shaped the African American experience throughout history. This is especially important, it said, because of the district's history.

The Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision in 1954 outlawed segregation, but Arkansas didn't begin the integration process until 1957 after being pressured by the local NAACP chapter. Little Rock Central High was among the first in the state to integrate. The Little Rock Nine, the school's first Black students, were met with an angry mob of white residents who didn't approve of their enrollment.

In 1958, Gov. Orval Faubus closed every Little Rock high school for the year to host a public vote. Little Rock residents voted 19,470 to 7,561 against integration and schools remained closed until 1959. The Little Rock Nine had to find new avenues to complete their degrees.

The historical significance is apparent to Mason, who even stayed in one of the Little Rock Nine students' homes for a period. Little Rock's role in the civil rights movement gives it a close connection to the course, making it even more personal for Arkansas students and the community.

The Little Rock School District based its brand around desegregation — down to its flag representing its first nine Black students.

Mason said, The nine stars around the entire torch represents this Little Rock School District and the courage to learn about those African American students and their families, too — their courage to desegregate so every student in Little Rock can have a full education.