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What we know about AP African American Studies, and why Florida doesn’t want it

ORLANDO, Fla. — Florida Department of Education leaders are refusing to explain why the College Board’s new AP African American Studies (APAAS) class “lacks educational value,” one day after a letter informing the Board that the class couldn’t be taught in the Sunshine State was made public.

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In a letter dated January 12 – right before the nation commemorated Martin Luther King Jr. day – the department’s Office of Articulation sent the board its decision, saying “this course is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.”

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“In the future, should College Board be willing to come back to the table with lawful, historically accurate content, FDOE will always be willing to reopen the discussion,” the letter read.

APAAS was first offered this school year in a multi-year pilot project. Sixty high schools across the country were allowed to teach it, including a charter school in Tallahassee. The pilot was set to expand to other schools next year before being formalized in 2024.

Due to its status as a pilot, few course materials have been publicly released. Multiple broad course overviews posted by the various schools involved in the pilot describe the course as a part-history, part-culture evolution of African American culture over time, beginning in medieval Africa and ending with modern protest movements.

The descriptions promised a heavy focus on primary source documents throughout, as well as a focus on resistance movements and oppression.

“Intersectionality, which refers to how various systems of oppression overlap, will also be a key tenet of the class,” another school’s description read.

That sets it apart from the African American history classes commonly found in high schools. Florida law requires students learn about the topic, although not necessarily in a dedicated class.

“Instruction shall include the roles and contributions of individuals from all walks of life and their endeavors to learn and thrive throughout history … and the courageous steps they took to fulfill the promise of democracy and unite the nation,” Florida law reads. “Instructional personnel may facilitate discussions and use curricula to address, in an age-appropriate manner, how the individual freedoms of persons have been infringed by slavery, racial oppression… curriculum may not be used to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view.”

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Florida’s new “Stop WOKE Act” restricts how teachers may address race and oppression in their classrooms.

The department’s attention to this issue may have come from the outlet that broke the news of the rejection, the National Review. Contributing Editor Stanley Kurtz has spent months railing against APAAS, taking aim at texts he said were being used in the class.

“APAAS clearly proselytizes for a socialist transformation of the United States,” he wrote last year. “The long and short of it is that APAAS promotes leftist radicalism. The sheer one-sidedness of the readings establishes that. The course’s political bias is so egregious that the presence or absence of [Critical Race Theory] laws is almost beside the point.”

Critical Race Theory is a graduate-level program that theorizes racism and racial bias is present in the structure of society and the legal system because the system was set up by white people. It definition has been twisted and broadened by social conservatives looking to rally voters to topics that deal critically with the issue of race. The “Stop WOKE Act” emerged because of that political push last spring.

In an emailed statement College Board representatives pushed back on the accusations of indoctrination and political bias.

“The course is designed to encourage students to examine each theme from a variety of perspectives, without ideology, in line with the field’s tradition of debates,” the statement read. “In the spring of 2024, the AP African American Studies course framework will be posted on the AP Program website after it reflects learnings from the pilot, so that anyone can read the course material directly and see the evidence-based content and skills that students learn in the course.”

The state’s ban was met with astonishment from the history community. Documents reported 100 college curricula and more than 130 professors were consulted during the design of the course over the last decade, including a during well-attended seminar for high school teachers involved in the pilot at Howard University this summer.

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Some pointed out AP European History was still available for students to take, along with AP courses in Art History and various European and Asian languages.

“I find it hard to believe that a governor, state employees, or state politicians are also qualified historians who can say whether any AP history course has “historically inaccurate information.” Howard University History Department Chair Dr. Nikki Taylor said. “Only historians can make such calls, not politicians.”

Dr. Christopher Tinson, chair of the African American Studies department at St. Louis University, was involved in vetting the course curriculum. He said he wanted a class that didn’t begin the African American experience with slavery, and also wanted to focus on topics like how the Haitian Revolution helped expand the US.

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He said he was disappointed by the state’s comments. At no point during the course’s development were corners cut, he explained, nor did the class teach Critical Race Theory to high schoolers, despite covering tough topics like racism and oppression.

He defended the course as a well-rounded effort to better prepare the next generation of scholars.

“We can’t continue to say that we want an informed citizenry that... that wants the best for each other, if we don’t understand the histories that people will carrying with them,” he said.

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