Published January 18, 2023
The College Board — the group that runs the SAT test and the Advanced Placement (AP) program — has launched a pilot version of an AP African-American Studies (APAAS) course, to great fanfare in the mainstream press. Although the APAAS pilot has received plenty of publicity, the College Board has clothed the course in secrecy. The curriculum has not been publicly released, nor have the names of the approximately 60 schools at which the pilot is being tested.
In various press accounts, College Board advisers and teachers — so as not to fall afoul of new state laws against the teaching of critical race theory — have denied that APAAS advocates CRT or indeed any particular theory or political perspective at all.
On January 12, however, the administration of Florida governor Ron DeSantis wrote a letter to the College Board informing it that Florida was rejecting its request for state approval of APAAS. The letter, from the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Articulation, goes on to state that, “as presented, the content of this course is inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.” At the same time, the letter notes that “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.” In short, DeSantis has decided that APAAS does in fact violate Florida’s Stop WOKE Act by attempting to persuade students of at least some tenets of CRT.
As far as I know, this is the first time that any state has refused to approve a College Board Advanced Placement course of any kind. While there were serious expressions of concern by some states during the 2014 controversy over the College Board’s leftist revision of its AP U.S. history course, no state or school district actually refused to approve the course. So this is a bold and unprecedented move by DeSantis.
DeSantis’s refusal to approve APAAS is entirely justified. Although the College Board has pointedly declined to release the APAAS curriculum, I obtained a copy and wrote about it in September. There I argued that APAAS proselytizes for a socialist transformation of the United States, that it directly runs afoul of new state laws barring CRT, and that to approve APAAS would be to gut those laws.
Florida’s Stop WOKE Act, for example, bars any K–12 attempt to promote the idea that color blindness is racist. Yet most of the readings in the final quarter of APAAS (Unit 4: Movements and Debates) reject color blindness. One of the topics in that unit is explicitly devoted to “color blindness.” There, APAAS suggests reading CRT advocate Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, best known for his theory of “color-blind racism.” Overall, the readings in the final quarter of APAAS — the quarter chiefly devoted to ideological controversies rather than to history per se — are extraordinarily one-sided. They promote leftist radicalism, with virtually no readings providing even a classically liberal point of view, much less some form of conservatism. If DeSantis were to approve a course pushing the idea of “color-blind racism,” he would effectively be nullifying his own Stop WOKE Act.
Then there’s APAAS’s promotion of socialism. A state doesn’t need a preexisting law to decide that a course filled with advocacy for socialist radicalism is inappropriate. In my earlier exploration of APAAS’s curriculum, I described the neo-Marxist thrust of the course. This is evident enough from the readings. On top of that, however, we know that Joshua M. Myers, the member of the APAAS curriculum-writing team whose expertise covers the final quarter of the course, is an acolyte of Cedric Robinson, author of Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Myers’s writings on African-American studies explicitly call for the field to reject traditional concepts of disciplinary neutrality and adopt openly anti-capitalist radical advocacy instead. In short, for DeSantis to approve the APAAS course as currently configured would be to repudiate everything he stands for. It would welcome woke, not stop it.
The College Board’s decision to keep the APAAS curriculum secret is indefensible. At least during the 2014 controversy over AP U.S. history, troubling though it was, the curriculum was public. This, of course, is why the College Board is resorting to secrecy now. It is trying to get states to approve APAAS for high school and college credit before there’s even a chance of informed public debate.
Last October, North Carolina’s James G. Martin Center submitted a public-records request calling on the lab school of Florida State University, where we know that APAAS is being piloted, to release the curriculum and associated materials. Gavin D. Burgess, associate general counsel of Florida State University, wrote back in December refusing that request. According to Burgess, “The vendor, College Board, has asserted that the materials you are seeking are trade secret and confidential.”
Again, for the College Board to keep the APAAS curriculum secret while simultaneously asking states to approve the course for high school and college credit is indefensible. This secrecy validates long-standing concerns about the College Board’s acting as a de facto unelected national school board. By filling APAAS with Marxism and critical race theory, while at the same time presenting the course as a harmless exercise in African-American history, the College Board is trying to fool the public. In effect, the College Board has decided to go to war with the national movement of parents working to take back control of their children’s schools. The College Board is using secrecy and prestige to nullify democracy.
The tactic is nefarious, but politically clever. What governor wants to be attacked for rejecting a course in African-American studies? It takes guts to say no to a course that looks benign on the surface but is in fact filled with CRT and leftist propaganda. DeSantis has got guts.
The larger danger here is that once APAAS is approved, we will see the College Board devise AP courses in women’s studies, gender studies, transgender studies, latino studies, environmental studies, the full panoply of politicized “studies” courses that have balkanized and politicized higher education. This will drain off students from AP U.S. history and quickly convert high schools into woke bastions. But again, once APAAS is approved, who will be able to say no to the others? That’s why I hope DeSantis will stand strong against any “studies-style” AP course at all.
That said, Florida has invited the College Board to revise its curriculum. A radically reconfigured APAAS still has a chance in Florida. A successful revision wouldn’t necessarily require the complete elimination of readings based in neo-Marxism and CRT. At minimum, however, it would call for such readings to be fully balanced by traditional liberal and conservative perspectives. (See my earlier piece on APAAS for specific suggestions.) Promoting radicalism is one thing. Even-handed discussion of competing views is another.
Yet again, DeSantis is setting the mark for other states. Will red states now reject the current APAAS curriculum? What about Texas? What about Georgia? These and other states have CRT laws and Republican governors. To approve APAAS as currently configured would be to make a mockery of those laws. And why would any state — CRT law or no — approve a course plugging socialist radicalism?
We shall see how it all plays out—and whether the College Board maintains its unjustified secrecy. At a minimum, no state should approve APAAS until the curriculum is released and there has been ample opportunity for the public to assess and debate it. In the meantime, all honor to DeSantis for being faithful to both his word and to the law. Truly, he is doing what it takes to stop woke.
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).
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash