Arkansas officials, lawmakers meet over African American studies course

Sanders, Oliva, legislators meet

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' speaks at her signing of the Arkansas LEARNS Act at the state Capitol on Wednesday, March 8, 2023. On her right is state Secretary of the Department of Education Jacob Oliva, who also spoke at the signing. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Arkansas officials said during a meeting with state legislators on Tuesday that they have no intention of taking away an AP African American studies course, despite the state Department of Education's removal of the class from its course code listings earlier in the month, according to lawmakers who attended the discussion.

The meeting took place between Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Arkansas Education Department Secretary Jacob Oliva and state Democratic lawmakers. During their discussion, lawmakers also urged state officials to provide a clearer definition of "indoctrination," which became prohibited in classrooms following an executive order from Sanders and the passage of the LEARNS Act.

State Sen. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, said those present at the hour-and-a-half-long meeting were able to talk about their concerns over the course, as well as the communication surrounding it.

"We feel much better after the meeting, that we have accomplished something in terms of communication and a better understanding of one to another," said Murdock, who is vice-chairman of the Arkansas Legislative Black Caucus.

Alexa Henning, spokeswoman for Sanders' office, said in an emailed statement, "Governor Sanders was happy to meet with Democratic Representatives and members of the Black Caucus to discuss the importance of education in Arkansas and the process by which AP courses meet the standards in the state. She looks forward to continuing to work with them and all teachers and schools to ensure Arkansas law is being followed."

Murdock said he believes the state education secretary feels compelled to protect those in education, and that he must review course material before it can be used in classrooms.

The LEARNS Act requires the state Department of Education to identify policies and materials that "promote teaching that would indoctrinate students with ideologies, such as critical race theory."

The law states the secretary of the state Education Department "shall amend, annul or alter the rules, policies, materials or communications" that conflict with the indoctrination prohibitions.

Similarly, executive orders Sanders issued on her first day in office included one "to prohibit indoctrination and critical race theory in schools."

Oliva has cited the Education Department's requirement to respond to prohibited indoctrination in defending his removal of the African American studies course from state listings.

State Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, said she and other lawmakers present at the meeting expressed their concern about the timing of the announcement that the course would be removed. Some schools reported receiving a call from state Education Department officials on Aug. 11, the Friday before the school year began.

She said state officials reported that the notice came so late because of a "clerical error."

The lawmakers who attended the meeting also asked for clarification about what state officials believe constitutes "indoctrination."

"We need to have a real definition of indoctrination," Clowney said. "African American history is American history. African American studies is American studies. What is it about this area that's raising concerns about indoctrination?"

She asked what standards those materials would be held to, and what might happen "if they aren't found to meet those standards."

A list of examples of indoctrination provided by the state Education Department includes references to "gender or gender identity" in a school cultural climate survey, a presentation to teachers that "instructed participants to 'acknowledge that [they harbor unconscious biases].'"

In each listed instance, the agency contacted the respective group, which agreed to make adjustments.

Clowney said having clarity on what specifically can be considered indoctrination "would really help teachers feel more solid on their footing."

"I hope that now that those questions have been asked in a very concrete way, I hope that now we will get answers to them," she said.

Murdock said clearer standards for indoctrination will help educators and officials to respond when material runs afoul of the prohibitions.

"Let's make sure we have good standards and guidelines for what defines indoctrination and those things that the law says to stay away from," he said. Let's make sure to understand what those are. Then let's react to them at that point."

The lawmakers who attended the meeting encouraged state officials to use "different messaging" around what is being taught in classrooms. Most teachers are not indoctrinating their students, according to Murdock.

"We don't feel like this is an academic conversation," he said. "This is really a political conversation, quite honestly."

Despite the political tenor of conversations around education in Arkansas, the senator said the lawmakers and officials agree that students should be taught to think on their own, and that all aspects of history should be taught, regardless of culture.

"What they said to us was not a major problem in that room yesterday," Murdock said. "We seem to all mostly want the same thing for the most part."

The meeting came a day after Oliva sent a letter to school superintendents requiring schools offering the African American studies class to submit course materials to the agency. Earlier in the month, the state Education Department notified administrators at school districts that planned to offer the course that it was being removed from the state course code listings.

As a result, students were no longer able use the course, which is a pilot program in its second year, to meet core graduation requirements. The state would also no longer pay the cost of the end-of-year exam.

All six schools that planned to offer the course -- Little Rock Central High School, North Little Rock High School, North Little Rock Center Of Excellence, The Academies at Jonesboro High and Jacksonville High School and eStem High School -- have said they are continuing to do so in spite of the scrutiny from the state Education Department.

In an Aug. 14 news release, the state Legislative Black Caucus had decried the course's removal from the Education Department's listings as "deeply concerning and sends a message to students in Arkansas that their African American peers are not as important and not as valued."

Their criticism at the time joined that of groups locally and nationally, including the Arkansas Education Association, the NAACP and members of the Little Rock Nine -- the first Black students to attend classes at Little Rock Central High School during the 1957 desegregation crisis.

The College Board denies that the course indoctrinates students.

"Advanced Placement African American Studies is not indoctrination, plain and simple," Holly Stepp, College Board spokeswoman, said Wednesday in an emailed statement.

"It is a college-level course rooted in the work of 300 scholars and includes facts of African-American experiences in the United States through primary sources that incorporate a combination of history, English, music, and more."

Oliva has pointed to what he described as "substantive changes" between the pilot program's first and second years, saying alterations leave questions about the nature of the course.

"We don't know what sources students have access to because it's new," he said.

While the course's framework for its second year as a pilot is available on the website of the national College Board that produced the class, a spokesman for the organization said in an email on Wednesday that individual AP teachers use that framework "to develop their own curriculum and instruction for their classes."

Although Oliva's response largely centered on questions surrounding whether course materials might violate state prohibitions, Arkansas' governor said in an interview on Fox News last week, in response to questions about the African American studies course, that the state needs to return to "the basics of teaching math, of teaching reading, writing and American history."

"We cannot perpetuate a lie to our students and push this propaganda leftist agenda, teaching our kids to hate America and hate one another," Sanders said. "It's one of the reasons that we put into law banning things like indoctrination and CRT [critical race theory]."

Oliva and representatives from the governor's office have also met with the College Board, Stepp said on Wednesday. She didn't immediately respond to a request for details regarding the meeting.