Whether more Virginia students will be able to take the first Advanced Placement course on African American studies will come down to local school boards as contentious public debate over education continues in the commonwealth.
Lynchburg City Schools has already added the course to its list of studies after its E.C. Glass High School was selected as one of 60 schools nationwide to pilot the program, and the district plans to offer the class at another high school next year.
Other divisions have also shown interest in the course. But its future is uncertain following Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s request that the state secretary of education review the course and how it relates to his executive order banning the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts.”
The College Board, the nonprofit organization that develops AP courses and exams, has said the course was created to offer an “evidence-based” introduction to African American studies that draws from disciplines ranging from literature to political science and the humanities.
Robert Vinson, who serves as director of the University of Virginia’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies and has reviewed the AP course, said it is about more than slavery.
“I appreciate that course because it reminds us that the beginning of human history begins in Africa and that’s not common-sense knowledge for most people, particularly young people,” Vinson said. “This to me is why it should be an option for anyone who wants to take it.”
Vinson said many UVA students’ first encounter with formal education on Black history and culture occurs on campus in Charlottesville. He said there’s demand for education in the field: More than 2,000 students have graduated from the African-American and African Studies program in the past 41 years.
Not everyone has been so positive. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been the most outspoken of the critics, saying the course lacks educational value and is promoting “a political agenda.” Officials in states including Arkansas, Mississippi and North Dakota have also since launched reviews of the coursework, claiming it has elements of critical race theory.
Ultimately, the decision of whether the course will spread more widely will come down to Virginia’s school boards and the state Board of Education, which have control over which AP courses are included in their respective lists of approved courses to count toward graduation.
Under state code, school boards in Virginia have authority over the development of their school system’s program of instruction.
After the College Board selected E.C. Glass for the AP African American studies pilot, the Lynchburg City School Board faced a vote on expanding its list of studies to add the course.
The board went through two reviews of the proposal before voting 8-1 to include the course on its list. The one member who opposed the move, Randy Trost, said he was concerned that the teacher who would lead the class hadn’t yet received training and didn’t know what materials would be needed.
School officials and fellow board members said Lynchburg used the same process it has previously followed to add new AP courses to its list of studies.
But Trost was not moved.
“I don’t care what the course is,” Trost said during the Jan. 25, 2022 meeting. “If you’re approving something that’s not fully developed, for me, that’s a cause for concern.”
Gary Harvey, who was on the board last January, said he believed there was fear over the adoption of “unknown” coursework but questioned if replacing “African American” studies with “Irish American” or “Anglo-American” studies would have changed the discussion.
“I think there’s a certain part of this that we need to trust both the College Board, our teachers and our students,” Harvey said.
Samuel Coleman, chief academic officer for Lynchburg City Schools, said the program has been a “tremendous success” among students, and the division plans to expand the yearlong course to its Heritage High School next school year.
“We believe that it’s important to provide rigorous course offerings that allow students an opportunity to learn about things that interest them, learn about topics that interest them and learn about society,” Coleman said.
Very excited to be sitting in on the very first AP African American Studies class here at @ecghighschool . We are the ONLY high school in Virginia and 1 of 30 across the COUNTRY to offer this course!!! Thank you @AaronReid76 for bringing this opportunity to our kids! pic.twitter.com/JAo5HO6TF0
— Jessica Barger (@MsJBarger) August 17, 2022
An uncertain Board of Education stance
While school boards have the power to determine whether the new AP course should be part of their district’s instructional program, the state Board of Education could ease the review process for smaller divisions with fewer resources to evaluate AP courses by adding it to the statewide list of approved courses.
According to Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, the state superintendent could recommend the course’s inclusion to the Board of Education. Or the board could initiate that process itself.
Virginia currently lacks a state superintendent following the resignation of Jillian Balow earlier this month. And appointees of Youngkin, who has asked for the review of the course, hold a majority on the Board of Education.
Macaulay Porter, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Youngkin asked Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera to review the AP course in light of the governor’s Executive Order No. 1 to “restore excellence in education by ending the use of divisive concepts, including critical race theory.”
“The governor and I are committed to having high expectations and taking the time to review and ensure that our course offerings prepare every Virginia student for success in life,” Guidera said in a statement. She added the review will be conducted similar to how the state examines other programs and curricula to “ensure that our students are being taught how to think, and not what to think.”
On March 9, the governor said during a CNN town hall that “inherently divisive concepts are taken directly, from the Civil Rights Act. And they’re teaching children that they’re inherently biased, or racist, because of their race, or their sex, or their religion. They teach that a child is guilty for sins of the past, because of their race, or their religion, or their sex. They teach that a child is oppressed, or a victim, because of their race, their religion, or their sex.”
Those ideas, he said, show up in curriculum.
“Critical race theory isn’t a class that is taught, it’s something that is a philosophy that’s incorporated in the curriculum,” Youngkin said. “This is a chance to make sure that we’re not pitting our children against one another based on race or religion or their sex, but teaching all history, the good and the bad.”.
Asked about the AP African American studies review, Youngkin said he didn’t have “any specific concerns” other than the desire to ensure it didn’t contain inherently divisive concepts.
“I have no reason to believe, given the changes that I know have been made to that course, that it won’t be a fine course for Virginia,” he said. “But I have to let our Department of Education do their job.”
An official curriculum for the course released by the College Board in February removed subject matter that had appeared in the pilot draft, including Black Lives Matter, Black feminism and the debate over reparations.
Pushback to review
Youngkin’s review has raised eyebrows among some African American history teachers and a handful of school board members in Fairfax County, the largest school division in the state.
In a Feb. 21 letter to Youngkin and Guidera, five Fairfax School Board members said the review is part of an “alarming pattern of disregard for the academic needs of the commonwealth’s students.” They also pointed in the same letter to the administration’s decision to discontinue Virginia’s Black History Month Historical Markers contest and its controversial proposed changes to Virginia’s history and social science standards.
Virginia has a “moral obligation” to teach students about the country’s past and progress, the members wrote. “The AP African-American Studies course offers this important objective in a way that also provides our students with valuable college credit. We should applaud and support our students’ desire to pursue rigorous curriculum offerings, not deny them these opportunities.”
Robert Patterson, a professor of African studies at Georgetown University who served on the course’s development team, said he’s unclear why Virginia would proceed differently after supporting the College Board’s work for several years.
“The issue here is not African American studies per se, but the issue is that they don’t want anything taught that is historically accurate, historically sound, that brings into view the way that white supremacy and anti-black racism among other -isms have shaped the American narrative,” Patterson said.
Anything that draws attention to this view is “supposedly divisive,” he said, even though the course isn’t mandatory.
“This is a lot of hoopla for an optional course,” Patterson said. “This is not a required course. This is a course that students can opt to take. So if you feel like your child is going to be exposed to some ‘divisive concepts’ and don’t want them to take it, then they just wouldn’t take that course.”