Big Win for DeSantis in Battle over AP African-American Studies

Published February 2, 2023

National Review Online

Ron DeSantis has chalked up a major victory in his struggle with the College Board over the content of its AP African-American-studies (APAAS) curriculum. Yes, the revised course is still biased, with some substantial strands of radicalism left intact. Determined teachers, administrators, and textbook authors will undoubtedly be able to turn APAAS into something much closer to its original politicized form. Concerns also remain that APAAS will be only the first of many politicized “studies” courses to be created by the College Board.

That said, pretty much all of the critical race theory (CRT), and the lion’s share of socialist agitation, has been removed from APAAS. Curricular manipulation by teachers will be limited by their need to focus on the official framework if they want their students to do well on the test. Critically important precedents have also been set. States have the power to pressure the College Board to modify its misguided curricular diktats. Live political controversies, when taught, must include diverse and contending perspectives. The legitimacy of the College Board’s monopoly over college equivalency testing has also been called into question.

I’ll suggest some things that Governor DeSantis can do to keep up the pressure on the College Board. To this point, however, problems and challenges notwithstanding, I don’t see how this can be viewed as anything other than a triumph for DeSantis. Virtually all of the radical political agitation he has objected to — and much more of it that he hasn’t even bothered to explicitly cite — has been removed from the required sections of the course. The College Board is full of tricks. I’ve called them out on their history of deceptive revisions repeatedly. In this case, however, the College Board’s replacements for the omitted material are significant improvements over the original curriculum. Yes, again, there is still room for mischief from radical teachers. Nonetheless, in the big picture, the College Board has capitulated to DeSantis. Their claim that he had nothing to do with these revisions is ludicrous. DeSantis did this, and every state in the union will benefit.

The revised APAAS curriculum has many fewer topics than the original. Nearly every now-omitted topic was filled with socialism, CRT, or some other radical perspective. Originally, an entire topic was devoted to Frantz Fanon’s glorification of violence — and its influence on black radicals in America. That topic is now gone. Another topic one-sidedly excoriated American foreign policy in Haiti. Gone. The unit on black queer studies has also been deleted. DeSantis won that showdown with Governor Pritzker. A topic on “Afrocentricity,” the scholarly legitimacy of which is very much in dispute, is gone. Also gone is a CRT-based unit calling colorblindness racist (in direct violation of Florida law). Units plugging reparations, prison abolition, intersectionality, the socialist platform of the Movement for Black Lives, and the revolutionary meditations of Marxist radical Robin D. G. Kelley, are likewise gone. That’s an awful lot of radicalism disappeared.

Other topics have been reworked so as to tone down leftist bias. Instead of a topic based on the writings of radical feminist and “womanist” writers, there’s a topic on the leadership of black women in the civil-rights movement. A couple of radical feminist writings are stuffed into other units. Likewise, Frantz Fanon is still referenced in passing. Those mentions make them fair game for both the exam and the paper. Nonetheless, most of the required readings for the reworked units are significantly less radical. Students will have to attend to those required writings to do well on the exam. So while teachers will have the option of focusing students on the remaining politically radical material, the overall profile of such radicalism has been very substantially reduced.

While most of the overt political agitation has been axed, the curriculum does still feature consecutive units on the Black Power Movement and the Black Panther Party. Students are required to read the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program of 1966, for example — a Marxist’s dream. So, again, teachers who so desire will still have plenty of scope to push a far-left agenda.

Nor has the College Board chosen to balance such material with readings from contemporary black liberals or black conservatives. Instead, the College Board has left contemporary controversies for optional paper topics. Such overt radicalism as remains is chiefly restricted to historical topics, such as Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. There are advantages to making live political controversies optional, since we can’t expect most teachers to treat contemporary political controversies evenhandedly. Mandating current debates would only give leftist teachers a chance to propagandize.

In addition to good cuts, the new curriculum includes a few welcome additions. Shockingly, the original framework omitted any serious discussion of black politicians. When you go through the socialist readings that dominated the original APAAS, you learn why. Most of the radicals assigned in the first version of the course are deeply hostile to black politicians. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book on Black Lives Matter, for example (now gone), devoted an entire chapter to attacking Obama. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, another casualty of the curriculum cuts, was deeply hostile to Obama as well. These Marxists disparaged Obama because he worked from within a system they hoped to overthrow. (I’d say that Obama’s inside strategy is actually more effective at achieving radical ends, but that’s an argument for another day.) Now, however, the College Board has added a unit on “Black Political Gains” featuring not only Obama but also Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. I call that progress.

I give way to no one in suspicion of the College Board. When the College Board published a bogus revision of its radical AP U.S. history (APUSH) curriculum in 2015, I pointed out their tricks. Yes, the phrase “American exceptionalism” was added to the curriculum to placate conservative critics. Leftist media wailed at the apparent concession. I noted, however, that the body of the revised APUSH curriculum did absolutely nothing to convey the substance of what American exceptionalism meant. It was a bogus revision, strictly designed to deflect conservative criticism. With all the continuing problems in APAAS — and they are real — this time is different. Far from perfect though it may be, the revised APAAS is a very noticeable improvement on the original. Why the difference? Because DeSantis had the guts to say no.

Maybe the sneakiest thing about this revision is the way it removes a lot of material explicitly treating “intersectionality,” while still including a topic on “Overlapping Dimensions of Black Life.” You could fairly say that this is intersectionality in practice, if not in name. At the same time, the assigned readings for the topic consist of a short story by Gwendolyn Brooks and other fiction, not contemporary political theory by advocates of CRT. And the new readings will be on the exam. So while a teacher can easily bring CRT-based essays on intersectionality into play when teaching the unit, the emphasis is going to have to stay on the less overtly politicized mandatory readings.

The revised curriculum leaves contemporary political controversies as optional topics for a paper, while omitting those topics from the exam. It is very important, however, that this optional material includes the possibility of a paper on black conservatism. The curriculum even suggests a paper on “controversies” over affirmative action — a significant turnaround from the one-sided policy advocacy of the original framework. The optional paper topics may not be on the exam, but they do establish the principle that, when treating contemporary controversies, competing perspectives should be considered. If the College Board does in fact turn out a series of “studies” courses, this precedent will likely act as an important check on politicization.

To be sure, this is still a left-biased course. There’s material on “white flight” to the suburbs, for example, that I find simplistic and one-sided. As noted, Black Power radicalism is still an important theme, and there are plenty of hooks for a teacher who wants to emphasize such material. That said, the utterly unbalanced CRT-based material and socialist agitation — which formerly made up the lion’s share of the final quarter of the course — has been cut to a fraction of its former size, even taking account of sneaky end runs. And a number of the remaining topics have been very significantly reworked in ways that tone down politicization. Traditional mainstream liberal and conservative policy views have not been introduced into the body of the course for balance, but they are present in the optional paper topics, and that is no small thing. On balance, this is the best we could have expected from a left-leaning organization’s “studies” course at this stage.

There’s much more that DeSantis (and other red-state governors) can do to help fix this problem. Why should we have to settle for working so hard just get to a curriculum still so very far from excellent? So long as the College Board enjoys a de facto monopoly on college-equivalency tests, it has the red states over a barrel. The problem goes way beyond APAAS. AP U.S. history, AP European history, AP world history, AP art history, and other AP courses all have similar problems of bias. The College Board is continually expanding the number of students in its AP courses, to capture even more of the market. And now it’s begun to churn out AP courses based on notoriously politicized campus “studies” programs. That turns them into a de facto unelected national school board. It’s time for red states to draw the line, and DeSantis has shown the way.

DeSantis should establish a system for vetting all the AP courses — not simply to make sure they don’t violate the Stop WOKE Act, but to remove one-sided biases antithetical to the desires of Florida’s citizens. Now that DeSantis has shown that states can have a say over the content of AP courses, it’s time to rein in the manifest leftism of AP U.S. history, AP European history, AP world history, AP art history, and more. Arkansas governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders has also raised questions about APAAS. Other red states should follow suit and start vetting the curriculum of all AP courses.

Florida and other red states should also begin to explore alternatives to the College Board. In my view, American Achievement Testing (AAT) (which I support but do not take money from) is best poised to become a true competitor to the College Board. (I write more about AAT here.) The sooner conservatives get behind AAT, the sooner states and local school districts will have real choice when it comes to college equivalency courses.

DeSantis and other red-state governors should also establish a U.S. history prerequisite for any “studies” course that the College Board might create, be it African-American studies, AP women’s studies, Latino studies, environmental studies, etc. These courses are bound to draw students away from AP U.S. history. That risks balkanizing high schools via identity politics, just as we’ve seen at colleges. It’s fine for Americans to understand and embrace their ethnic heritage, but not at the expense of their understanding of America and its history. School is where we learn the history that binds us together as Americans. That history must take priority in the classroom.

APAAS focuses heavily on “diasporic solidarity” (the solidarity of all peoples descended from Africa). Some versions of African diasporic solidarity supplement a sense of participation in the American adventure. That’s fine. Yet some versions of diasporic solidarity outright reject a sense of Americanness in favor of pure “pan-Africanism.” APAAS highlights the more radical approaches, and you can bet that other AP “studies” courses would do something similar with other identity groups. That’s why any student taking an AP “studies” course should already have taken U.S. history. I have my doubts that any “studies” courses are appropriate for high school at all. If we’re to have some, however, states are going to have to vet them like DeSantis vetted APAAS, and adopt prerequisites as well.

There is much to do, but let’s celebrate DeSantis’s huge win. With all the caveats, DeSantis’s APAAS victory is still the most consequential pushback I’ve seen against the leftist education establishment in decades. It took courage to face a torrent of false racism charges and get this win. DeSantis did it, and I am truly impressed.

Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Beyond his work with Education and American Ideals, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates on a wide range of issues from K–12 and higher education reform, to the challenges of democratization abroad, to urban-suburban policies, to the shaping of the American left’s agenda. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).

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