The College Board Goes to War with DeSantis

Published February 13, 2023

National Review Online

Facing a torrent of criticism from customary allies on the left for having caved to Ron DeSantis on the AP African-American Studies (APAAS) curriculum, the College Board issued an attack on Florida’s governor at the unlikely hour of 8 p.m. Saturday night. What can account for so oddly timed a salvo? Friday’s calls from the National Black Justice Coalition, among others, for the resignation of College Board CEO David Coleman may have had something to do with it.

Despite winning a considerable victory on the curriculum front, DeSantis has not yet formally accepted APAAS as a for-credit course in Florida. The governor rightly wants to learn more about the College Board’s newly announced plans to include and highlight critical-race-theory-based readings in APAAS’s “AP Classroom” digital platform.

The College Board appears to have calculated that it has no further political leeway either to reduce the radical readings that will now be made available in its AP Classroom portal, or to balance them with more moderate and conservative voices. Knowing that DeSantis is therefore unlikely to greenlight APAAS, the College Board has gone to war with Florida. Attacking DeSantis is the College Board’s best hope for downsizing the tsunami of outrage threatening to engulf it from the left. Yet the College Board’s attack on Florida’s governor risks driving away the red states, particularly states that have laws barring the promotion of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in K–12.

Against all appearances — and against common sense — the College Board continues to claim that several months’ worth of expressions of concern by Florida about CRT-based content had nothing to do with the radical revisions to APAAS announced on February 1. These denials continue in the face of the timeline released by the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) detailing its contacts with the College Board.

The College Board now claims that those extensive communications with FDOE were merely “transactional.” Supposedly, all the College Board wanted from Florida was a “course code” that would have allowed students to take the pilot APAAS course for credit. Yet by its own account, the College Board understood that Florida was withholding such credit until it was confident that the course did not promote CRT, in violation of Florida law.

The College Board’s Saturday-night missive goes on to claim that Florida’s concerns couldn’t possibly have affected its February APAAS curriculum revisions. After all, Florida’s feedback was “vague” and “uninformed.” All Florida offered, according to the College Board, were questions such as “What does the word ‘intersectionality’ mean?” and “Does this course promote Black Panther thinking?”

Actually, “promoting Black Panther thinking” is an excellent summary of the problems with APAAS. As I explained in September, in my critique of the then-secret curriculum, the Black Panther Party’s Marxist worldview and policy platform were the unifying feature of APAAS’s controversial concluding unit. The topic on the Black Panthers connected everything from radical psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s musings on the healing power of violence, at the outset of the unit, to Marxist professor Robin D. G. Kelley’s meditations on the revolutionary history of black studies, at unit’s end.

The College Board laughably pretends not to have understood what Florida was getting at. How could Florida have influenced APAAS’s curriculum revisions when Florida couldn’t even make its own concerns clear? Come on. The College Board knew exactly what Florida was worried about. It can’t even maintain a consistent pose of naïveté throughout the text of Saturday’s letter. Toward the end of that letter, the College Board actually makes fun of Florida for acting as though it needs to explain the controversy over terms such as “intersectionality” and “systemic” racism. The idea that you have to explain this controversy to us is ridiculous, says the College Board. Exactly. The College Board understood Florida’s concerns perfectly well from the start. It needed no detailed roadmap to curriculum revision from FDOE.

The College Board played dumb with Florida for months because it understood perfectly well that FDOE would never approve APAAS if it knew what was actually in it. APAAS is thick with advocacy for CRT and radical Marxism. The trick is that this radicalism was buried by the initial curriculum, which mentioned authors without listing specific assignments or concepts. You had to read extensively in the work of various authors, and guess which essays and books would actually be assigned, to catch the drift of all the advocacy. The College Board backtracked in February, not because it didn’t understand Florida concerns, but because it understood them all too well.

The College Board’s real problem was its failed attempts at secrecy and deception. Only when it realized that Florida wouldn’t be fooled by a vague and confusing curriculum framework did the College Board modify APAAS. Throughout its latest letter, the College Board expresses regret for its failure to communicate. Saturday’s statement is filled with phrases such as “We should have made clear,” “We have not succeeded in focusing the conversation,” “We were naïve not to announce,” etc.

Whom are they kidding? The College Board could have publicly released every single version of the pilot APAAS curriculum in real time. Instead, it suppressed information and squelched public-records requests with the absurd claim that it was protecting “trade secrets” — although the College Board has no competition.

The College Board cleverly constructed an APAAS curriculum that was impossible to evaluate without extensive study of unnamed articles by a cavalcade of obscure authors. Then it orchestrated an APAAS publicity campaign in the mainstream press, allowing its allies to offer false assurances that the course contained no political agenda and no CRT. Evidently, the goal was to deceive red states such as Florida into approving the course without disclosing enough information for public writers to warn about all the neo-Marxist advocacy and CRT. It was trying to avoid a rerun of the 2014 controversy over the leftist AP U.S. History curriculum, by keeping the new curriculum a secret. Once it became evident that Florida would not be fooled, the College Board backtracked.

Now the College Board has the nerve to chastise FDOE for not bringing experts onto their phone calls to detail the state’s curricular concerns. What a joke. The College Board’s own experts, had they been honest, could have easily and immediately answered FDOE’s repeated questions about the presence of CRT in the APAAS curriculum. The honest answer would have been, “Yes, there’s plenty of CRT in our APAAS curriculum, and by the way, plenty of neo-Marxist advocacy, too.” As I said, the College Board has been playing dumb in order to deceive — and is doing so now to disguise its failed campaign of deception. The College Board knew exactly what Florida was worried about from the get-go. It just didn’t want to confirm Florida’s concerns by being honest about the curriculum.

FDOE — backed by DeSantis’s unequaled political courage on education issues — finally forced the College Board to revise its APAAS curriculum. That said, my September 12, 2022, piece exposing and critiquing the still-secret APAAS curriculum likely had an effect as well. That piece probably reinforced FDOE’s already substantial concerns about APAAS, while bringing it home to the College Board that its campaign of secrecy and deception had failed. Something like this has been suggested by influential leftist education blogger Diane Ravitch, and by a Los Angeles Times op-ed (but with a much less friendly spin). As the College Board notes in its most recent letter, the FDOE first communicated its rejection of the course on September 23, 2022. That was just a couple of weeks after my piece appeared. And right around that point, the College Board began the curriculum revisions that appeared in February.

Now why would the College Board begin to draft its “final” APAAS curriculum at the very beginning of Year One of a two-year pilot program? If the College Board was really basing its revisions exclusively on teacher and student feedback, wouldn’t it have waited until finishing the first year of its pilot course? What’s the point of piloting a course if you revise the curriculum before actually teaching the pilot? Most of the revisions to APAAS applied to the controversial final quarter. That quarter hadn’t even been taught by September, when the curriculum revisions began. Nor had the controversial concluding quarter been taught by February 1, when the revised curriculum was released.

That means the February revision was very evidently a response to Florida’s decision on September 23 to reject the course, and very possibly a response as well to my September 12 public exposure of the curriculum. Once the College Board saw that states couldn’t be tricked into approving the course prior to a national debate over the curriculum, it knew it would have to reduce the course’s radicalism or resort to backdoor strategies.

Having given up on Florida, the College Board is now doing everything in its power to reverse its February retreat. Saturday’s letter emphasizes that “every author mentioned in any iteration of the framework” will be made available in the digital platform, facilitated by special copyright permissions when possible. In other words, all the Marxism and CRT is back. While the token optional paper topic on black conservatives remains, there is no indication that efforts have been made to list or get copyright permissions for work by specific conservative — or even moderate — authors.

And whereas the College Board earlier claimed that APAAS would not require secondary sources, it now seems to have changed its tune. Now, we’re told that secondary sources will be required, not in the universal syllabus, but in the syllabi created by individual teachers. Those syllabi must be approved by the College Board. In effect, that invites individual APAAS teachers to construct syllabi filled with CRT and neo-Marxism — balanced by nothing at all. That would amount to a total end-run around state-level CRT laws.

True, the College Board acknowledges that teachers in some states will have less flexibility to design syllabi because of these CRT laws. Yet it is equally clear that the College Board finds those laws abhorrent, and it would not on its own turn down a syllabus that violated state statutes. The College Board even adds a cryptic comment to its promise to give “teachers the flexibility to teach essential content without putting their livelihoods at risk” (i.e., without violating state CRT laws). To this promise of flexibility in curriculum and requirements, the College Board adds, “The committee will continue to evaluate this approach making further changes to the framework if they decide to do so.” The phrasing is vague, but it can certainly be read as a pledge to come up with new ways of getting around state CRT laws, if only the College Board can figure out a way to do it.

Who knows, down the road the College Board may soften its stance and show greater willingness to accommodate DeSantis’s concerns. Truly and fully balancing the readings made available in the AP Classroom portal by adding conventional political liberals and conservatives to the Marxists would go a long way, especially if paper assignments call for comparison of opposing views. We still can’t rule out ultimate acceptance of a modified APAAS.

At this point, however, it’s tough to see how DeSantis can approve of this course. On top of making unpersuasive and downright insulting attacks on FDOE and the governor, the College Board is promising to include as many radical and CRT-based readings in the AP Classroom portal as possible. Notwithstanding the optional nature of any particular reading, the College Board is clearly doing everything in its power to mandate a paper assignment that will, in the majority of cases, encompass CRT. It’s also setting up individual teachers — via syllabi that they will design and that the College Board will approve — to circumvent state CRT laws, while adding a virtual promise of more tricks to come. If DeSantis were to approve the course as it is now being described, he would be undermining his own Stop WOKE Act.

The larger question is what will happen in other red states, particularly those with CRT laws of their own. If they knuckle under and approve APAAS, they will be effectively nullifying such laws. If, on the other hand, other red states reject APAAS, the College Board’s status as a de facto unelected national school board may begin to give way. Great things could follow from that, including the advent of an alternative college-placement testing service that would restore curricular choice to states and local school districts.

The College Board has brought this problem on itself, by keeping the APAAS curriculum secret, by pretending not to understand Florida’s easily understood concerns, by ostentatiously refusing to take advice from any governor, by treating the overtly political fulminations of left-activist writers as if they were the considered judgements of neutral experts, and by responding with angry denial when caught.

Now that the College Board has put a thumb in the eye of Florida and the other red states, we can expect a wave of ethnic and gender AP “studies” courses that mimic the politicization of their college counterparts. The question is, Will the red states surrender, as they have already surrendered to the politicization of the College Board since 2014? Or will this new and still more radical play to bring campus-style balkanization and leftist activism to K–12 finally break the College Board’s stranglehold on our schools?

Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. 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 is a key contributor to American public debates. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).

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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