Arkansas state officials, lawmakers search for common ground on AP African American Studies

By: - August 23, 2023 8:00 am
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Education Secretary Jacob Oliva talk about the LEARNS Act and what it means for K-12 education in Arkansas at an invitation-only town hall in El Dorado on June 6, 2023. (Randall Lee/Courtesy of the Governor's Press Office)

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Education Secretary Jacob Oliva talk about the LEARNS Act and what it means for K-12 education in Arkansas at an invitation-only town hall in El Dorado on June 6, 2023. (Randall Lee/Courtesy of the Governor’s Press Office)

This story was updated at 10:36 a.m. on Aug. 23, 2023.

An AP African American Studies pilot course will be offered to completion during the 2023-24 academic year despite an ongoing review of curriculum materials, state officials told Arkansas lawmakers Tuesday. 

About a dozen legislators met with Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Education Secretary Jacob Oliva Tuesday morning to discuss the new AP course being piloted in six Arkansas schools. 

The meeting was led by the Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus, and Sen. Reginald Murdock, a Democrat from Marianna and vice chair of the Black Caucus, said communication is key to coming out better on the other side of this. 

“[I] look forward to us focusing on the things that we can agree upon and making sure that we continue to do our best together to educate our children in Arkansas and unify Arkansas,” he said. “I want to see us unified. Us divided is not good.” 

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders was happy to meet with lawmakers “to discuss the importance of education in Arkansas and the process by which AP courses meet the standards in the state,” communications director Alexa Henning said.

“She looks forward to continuing to work with them and all teachers and schools to ensure Arkansas law is being followed,” Henning said.

During the hour-and-a-half meeting, Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, said the administration assured lawmakers “they have no plan or intent to pull the rug out from under” teachers and students involved in this year’s pilot classes. 

“Whether you agree or disagree, they may have questions about some of the material that’s taught and if that comes up, they may address that with the school districts or the schools that are offering the class,” Tucker said. “But their intent is not to pull the class entirely, and I think that’s important for the public to understand.”

Arkansas Ed secretary raises concerns, requests AP African American coursework

Oliva sent a letter to the schools on Monday requesting they submit course materials to ADE 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.

Holly Stepp — executive director of communications and marketing for College Board, the organization that administers AP courses and exams — said she’s not aware of other state education departments requesting the submission of course materials like Arkansas. The class is being offered in about 740 schools in 40 states and Washington D.C. this year, according to College Board.

Jonesboro School District Director of Marketing and Communications Marcie Cheatham said the district received notification from ADE and intends to comply with the request.

“We plan on continuing with the course and are currently compiling the requested information for the ADE and plan to release it to them in a timely manner,” Cheatham said.

A Jacksonville North Pulaski School District official declined to comment. 

Officials at the Little Rock School District, eStem Public Charter Schools and the North Little Rock School District (which has two participating schools) did not respond to questions Tuesday.


Although Tucker, a Little Rock Central High School grad, said he was appreciative of the “robust discussion” as well as the time the governor and education commissioner gave lawmakers, he said he still had some unanswered questions. 

A clear definition for terms like “indoctrination” and Critical Race Theory was a “point of vigorous discussion” in Tuesday’s meeting, he said. 

The legislators pressed the administration for objective standards and metrics that teachers and schools and parents can use to know whether they’re violating the law or not,” Tucker said. “Hopefully we’ll get that.”

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said she kept asking for a definition of  indoctrination and Critical Race Theory, but is still “at a loss for what it is.” The former educator said a definition is important because it precludes misunderstanding.

“If I know the parameters within which I am to work, then I am better able to prepare a lesson plan and impart this very, very important information,” Chesterfield said. “I have read all 229 pages of this [course framework] and I would love to be teaching right now and have this kind of information.”

Chesterfield said she’s never seen a teacher engage in indoctrination and this is a new concept in Arkansas.

“I was around the classroom for about 30 years and it never came up,” she said. “I’ve been on the education committee since 2003 and it has never come up. And so these are new concepts and people need to be able to define what they don’t want you to do.”

Murdock said state officials told lawmakers they want all history, including Black history, taught, but they don’t want teachers telling students how to think.

Everybody in the room, that’s what everybody agreed that they want,” Murdock said. “That’s a common ground that we came together on is that we wanted students to have information and not indoctrination, which is what they were fearful of.”

Murdock said this is a political issue, not an academic issue.

UPDATE: Arkansas school districts move forward with AP African American Studies course

“It’s a hot topic now and it’s now bleeding into the Legislature, and we should not let it bleed into our education that’s taught to our children,” he said. “We need to keep this out. Not saying that there isn’t some percentile of people that won’t do indoctrination. I know they will, but I don’t think that’s our teachers.”

In a statement to the Advocate, a College Board spokesperson said AP African American Studies “is not indoctrination, plain and simple.” The college-level course is rooted in the work of more than 300 scholars and includes facts about African-American experiences in the United States through primary sources that incorporate a combination of fields like history, English and music, according to the statement. Primary sources refer to first-hand accounts of a topic, from people who had a direct connection with it, such as diaries, letters, original video or audio or newspaper accounts by reporters who witnessed an event.

The pilot course framework has been available for public review since Feb. 1. ADE was informed of the framework then, following its October 2022 approval of the pilot course code, according to College Board.

“Individual AP teachers use the course framework to develop their own curriculum and instruction for their classes, creating meaningful learning opportunities for students,” the statement reads. “AP teachers are experienced and highly skilled professionals. We are fully confident in their abilities to teach this course without any indoctrination.”

AP course frameworks include the required content for a course and in some cases include required primary sources for that course content, Stepp said.

While we may include some sample instructional activities, it is completely the purview of the individual teacher to decide how he or she delivers that required content,” she said. “This is the same for every AP course.”

When asked about whether the department has or will request materials from other AP courses for review, an ADE spokesperson responded by sharing a copy of the letter Oliva sent to schools on Monday.

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Concerns about the AP African American Studies pilot arose earlier this month when the Education Department removed the class from its approved course list two days before the start of school. The status change means the class won’t count for graduation credit and the state won’t cover AP exam fees as it does for other AP courses.

Oliva last week said the AP African American Studies class was listed in error during the 2022-23 school year. As a pilot, the curriculum is still subject to change, but state education officials can review it once it’s finalized and consider it for approval, he said.

All six schools confirmed last week that they would continue offering the course for local credit, and the majority are considering options for covering AP exam fees.

Students are not prohibited from taking the end-of-year exam if they choose, Oliva said last week. The tests are scored on a 1 to 5 scale and those scores can translate to college credit. 

More than 200 colleges and universities across the country have signed on to provide college credit, including the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, according to College Board.


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Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is a multimedia journalist who has reported since 2007 on a wide range of topics, including politics, health, education, immigration and the arts for NPR affiliates, print publications and digital platforms. A University of Arkansas alumna, she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a master’s degree in documentary film.