Published January 26, 2023
In an unprecedented development filled with implications for American education, Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker is now demanding that “the role played by Black queer Americans” be included in the College Board’s soon-to-be-revised AP African-American Studies (APAAS) course. To my knowledge, until Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s recent rejection of the unrevised APAAS curriculum framework, no state had ever vetoed an AP course. Now, two governors are making contradictory demands of the same course, and the College Board is caught in the middle. How can its promised revision satisfy both DeSantis and Pritzker?
In a letter yesterday to the College Board, Pritzker attacked what he called “Florida’s racist and homophobic laws” and pledged that Illinois would “reject any curriculum modifications designed to appease extremists like the Florida Governor and his allies.” This puts the College Board in quite a pickle. As DeSantis sees it, APAAS’s focus on intersectionality and black queer theory amounts to pushing a one-sided political agenda on our children. Pritzker, on the other hand, says queer theory has got to stay. The harsh tone of Pritzker’s letter notwithstanding, he leaves himself plenty of maneuvering room on most issues. When it comes to black queer studies, however, the College Board is caught between the proverbial irresistible force and immovable object.
The underlying problem is the contradiction between the de facto national curriculum created by the College Board’s ever-expanding menu of AP courses on the one hand and America’s federalist system on the other. School curricula are rightly controlled by local districts and states. The College Board’s AP system constitutes a kind of end run around that.
That didn’t matter much before about 2014. Prior to that, the College Board gave individual AP teachers considerable flexibility on their curricular approach, so long as they covered a set of required topics. Beginning around 2014, however, the College Board began to issue detailed curriculum frameworks for its AP courses. Those curriculum frameworks are put together by the kind of professors who’ve thoroughly politicized America’s colleges and universities. This creation of a national curriculum through the back door allowed the College Board to impose college-style leftism on America’s high schools. In effect, the College Board’s post-2014 strategy is a way of nullifying democratic control of our schools.
And with an ever-expanding set of politicized AP courses, the College Board’s ideological takeover of our schools continues to grow. AP African-American Studies is surely only the first of a series of campus-style “studies” courses to be devised by the College Board — like women’s studies, gender studies, Latino studies, ethnic studies, environmental studies, etc. That means our high schools are headed for university-style balkanization and politicization — unless the states rebel.
Welcome to the rebellion. The contradiction between our federalist system and a de facto national curriculum imposed on states and local school districts by unelected and politically motivated professors has finally broken into the open. The College Board can no longer rely on automatic acquiescence by states. We have entered a new era. It’s far too early, however, to know the outcome.
Notice that Pritzker is effectively threatening to veto APAAS altogether unless the curriculum is modified to his liking. Will there now be a flood of media stories falsely accusing Pritzker of not wanting to teach the history of black Americans? Of course not. Yet DeSantis has been falsely accused of just that. DeSantis has repeatedly said that he favors — and that Florida law demands — teaching the history of black Americans. All DeSantis has done is to call for a curriculum congenial to the wishes of his state — just like Pritzker.
You might think the College Board could resolve its dilemma by offering slightly different curricula for states to choose between. That would be difficult, however, since the key to AP courses is the final exam. AP exams are tough and expensive to develop. Maybe a curriculum and test with very slight variations on a single issue, like black queer studies, could be produced. Once that precedent was set, however, where would it end? Soon, governors everywhere would demand curriculum changes, and a national test would become impossible.
A better way to solve this problem would be to break the College Board’s monopoly and create a college-credit testing and curriculum company with a more traditional approach. (I’ve written about that here.) Then, states and school districts would have a real choice in what kind of college-equivalent courses they want to adopt.
Until a real alternative is fully up and running, however, we are stuck with the College Board — and the College Board has clearly overreached its jurisdiction. It’s busy trying to impose college-style leftism on the country as a whole. But thanks to Governor DeSantis’s courage and determination, the red states are no longer buying it.
What about the blue states, then? Pritzker shows they’re happy to continue using the College Board as a route to leftist national dominance of our education system. In 2021, I wrote about Illinois’s outrageous new teaching standards, which force even teachers with sincerely held religious beliefs to the contrary to affirm “gender fluidity,” and many other radical ideas. Those teaching standards were imposed on Illinois by bureaucratic fiat, to the great displeasure of conservative districts upstate. Those bureaucrats were directed by Pritzker.
While I generally favor local control, the imposition of statewide woke education standards by Pritzker’s bureaucrats pushed me into supporting statewide CRT laws as a necessary defensive measure. The College Board’s national overreach confirms the need for such laws, although once they’re passed, it takes the courage of a governor like DeSantis to make them work.
Pritzker’s tyrannical, ultra-woke state teaching standards helped get us into this mess. I’m sure his letter to the College Board will help him launch a presidential bid if Biden doesn’t run. But when you look into the Illinois teaching-standards fiasco, what you see is chilling. Faced with the choice between the Illinois and Florida ways, the country will go with Florida. We’re already voting that way with our feet, after all, as states like Illinois lose population to states like Florida. Meanwhile, the College Board’s in a mess of its own making. With a revised APAAS curriculum due on February 1, we’ll know soon enough how they try to get out of it.
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).