Ethics & Public Policy Center

AP U.S. History Battle Hits Georgia

Published in National Review Online on March 23, 2015


The controversy over leftist bias in the College Board’s new framework for Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. History has taken a new turn. Now that the College Board has decided to go beyond telling teachers what topics to cover and has moved to control how the class itself is taught, a question has arisen. Why should a single company enjoy what is effectively a government-supported monopoly on AP testing?

A resolution intended to open up the market in AP testing to competition easily passed the Georgia state senate earlier this month, and it is now being considered by the Georgia State House. The senate resolution,SR 80, sponsored by state senator William Ligon, could serve as a model for other states. A contentious hearing before the Joint Education Committee of the Georgia State Legislature last month (at which I testified) laid the groundwork for this new phase of our emerging national debate over the teaching of American history. I’ll have more on this hearing and on the Georgia resolutions below, but let’s first consider the changing nature of this controversy.

When the College Board’s new AP U.S. History (APUSH) framework went into effect in autumn of the current school year, a national debate was born. In the first phase, the focus was on bias in the framework, and the College Board was on the defensive. Scholars like James Madison biographer Ralph Ketcham and modern American historian Ron Radosh issued detailed critiques of the new curriculum’s bias, while I offered two detailed historical accounts of leftist influence on the College Board’s revisionism.

In the second phase of the battle, moves by a conservative school board in Jefferson County, Colorado and state legislators in Oklahoma to modify or withdraw from the College Board’s revisionist course drew huge media attention, accusations of “censorship,” and worried responses from parents hoping to burnish their children’s college applications with evidence of AP coursework. Few media accounts of these battles bothered to fairly represent what thoughtful critics of the College Board’s framework had to say.

The problem at this stage was that the College Board was the only game in town, so threatening to unilaterally revise or abandon its AP curriculum was politically untenable. For one thing, college applicants with AP courses on their transcripts definitely have a leg up, so simply dropping the program is guaranteed to alienate parents. For another thing, while states and local school boards have both a right and duty to authorize curricula, unilaterally intervening to change the College Board’s own framework is a political hornet’s nest, and unlikely to work in any case.

The obvious solution is competition. Even the over-nationalized Common Core offers two testing consortia for states to choose between. So why not have competition in AP testing as well? If there were two or more companies offering college-equivalent coursework and testing for high school students, states and local school boards like the one in Jefferson County could simply shift to a company that takes a less tendentious approach to U.S. history.

The Georgia resolution, SR 80, aims to open up the AP testing market in exactly this way. It does not mandate a premature and politically untenable withdrawal from the College Board’s AP program. But it does call for Georgia’s congressional delegation to push for greater competition in the massive federal Advanced Placement subsidies that currently go to the College Board. The resolution also directs state education officials to “explore alternatives” to the College Board’s Advanced Placement program. This amounts to a signal of encouragement from the state of Georgia to private companies thinking of offering alternatives to the College Board.

This is both a thoughtful and a politically viable approach. Were it to spread to other states, there is an excellent chance that it would bring genuine choice to the fore in advanced secondary school testing for college credit. I made the case for exactly this strategy in a recent Op-Ed for The Washington Post (while taking my own shot at the bias of the College Board’s new history framework).

The Georgia hearing on SR 80, where I testified last month, was a polite but contentious affair. For just short of three hours, former APUSH teacher Larry Krieger and I engaged in a great deal of give and take with Trevor Packer, the head of the College Board’s AP program, and another APUSH teacher. You can find a video of the hearing here [click the video that says “(Joint) Wednesday, Feb. 18.”]

The Georgia State Senate version of SR 80 passed by a strong 38-17 margin, with the vote falling along party lines. Just that vote alone should be enough to get the ball rolling on similar resolutions in other states, but the Georgia House is also moving forward on SR 80, after slightly tweaking the language. It’s tough to imagine Georgia’s Nathan Deal, a conservative governor of a conservative state, vetoing a resolution on an issue of such interest to conservatives nationally.

The Georgia House does tend to be a bit more liberal on education issues, so there’s no guarantee it will pass a version of SR 80. A bill last year to withdraw from Common Core passed the Senate, yet died in a committee of the House. Nonetheless, as Rep. Dave Belton said during the hearing (1:41:05 of the video), the APUSH issue is “worse than Common Core.”  There’s “no appetite” for this new history framework in Georgia, added Belton, as he condemned the new course for its blatantly unbalanced approach to American history. Rep. Mike Dudgeon, who led the House-side questioning at the Georgia joint hearing also hit the leftist tenor of the framework (46:40 of the video) and said he’d observed the bias by following his own son’s APUSH coursework (53:57).

But the competition issue clearly focused the Georgia hearing, hitting home with many of the senators and representatives. Rep. Edward Setzler opened up a particularly clever line of questioning when he segued from praise for the history framework’s treatment of trust-busting to criticism of the College Board’s testing monopoly (1:13:55). Setzler had what might have been the most important score of the day when he got Trevor Packer to publicly state that the College Board would welcome competition (1:14:40—1:17).

For other highlights of the hearing: at 1:20:45, Packer hilariously maintains that the framework’s outrageous treatment of Ronald Reagan was actually meant as a compliment; at 2:34:55 the College Board is again squirming under questioning about its status as a monopoly; from 2:01:30—2:33:50 SR 80 sponsor William Ligon shows a series of slides containing excerpts from the framework, each of which provokes sharp back and forth between the pro- and anti-framework witnesses.  My opening statement begins at 15:45.

So with the passage of SR 80 by the Georgia State Senate and what may soon be passage of a similar measure by the Georgia State House, the APUSH debate is entering new territory. There is now a politically viable strategy for opening up the AP testing market to competition. Resolutions modeled on SR 80 can be introduced in other states, without committing those states to withdraw from the College Board’s program.  Yet every time such a resolution makes it through a committee vote, a state house or senate vote, or a full legislature, it will signal encouragement to companies considering offering competition to the College Board.

In short, there is a solution to this problem, a solution which a spokesman for the College Board has publicly approved in principle (however much it may have been through gritted teeth). Federalism and free enterprise may receive scant attention in the College Board’s new U.S. history framework, but they do offer a solution to this problem, and a valuable history lesson to us all.

— Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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