Backlash Grows as Right-Wing Censors Push Political Attacks on AP U.S. History Course

by Dan Quinn

The far right’s war on public education has a new target: Advanced Placement U.S. History, of all things. And now efforts to censor what students learn in those courses has sparked a growing backlash from students, parents, teachers and advocacy groups that are worried about efforts to politicize the popular course taken by nearly a half-million high schoolers across the country.

The manufactured controversy over AP U.S. History has roots, as this informative summary points out, at the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE). That should be no surprise to anyone who knows just how politicized the SBOE is and how influential its far-right bloc has been over the past decade.

Texas SBOE member Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, began flogging the issue earlier this year, insisting (misleadingly and inaccurately) that the College Board’s revamped framework for the course undermined patriotism and promoted America-bashing. Joined by variety of Tea Party and other right-wing activists, Mercer has claimed that the framework leaves out key patriotic figures and emphasizes negative aspects of American history. Activists supporting his efforts call the course anti-American, argue that it is tied to Common Core curriculum standards (which they see as practically satanic), and criticize examples of what they darkly call  “progressive education” throughout the framework.

Mercer proposed an SBOE resolution condemning the course, but the board last month adopted a watered-down version that was somewhat less critical. Even so, right-wingers have celebrated the passage of that resolution as well as a new SBOE rule requiring all AP courses in Texas to cover the state’s required curriculum standards. (Yes, the same deeply flawed curriculum standards that even the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute has criticized as a “politicized distortion of history” after the SBOE’s far-right bloc rammed through their approval in 2010.)

Meanwhile, the controversy has spread outside of Texas, aided by writers at the conservative National Review as well as other bloggers and political activists. In August the Republican National Committee passed a resolution condemning the AP course framework’s for its alleged “radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” Tea Party heartthrob Ben Carson has claimed that the course will lead students “to go sign up for ISIS,” the radical and murderous Islamist group in Iraq and Syria. And activists have promoted the anti-AP campaign in various states and local communities across the country, including South Carolina and Colorado.

The College Board has repeatedly explained that the attacks are fueled by misinformation about the course. See an open letter from the College Board about the controversy here and the College Board’s Frequently Asked Questions guide about the new framework here.

And now supporters of the AP U.S. History course are fighting back. Colorado’s state education board refused to consider a resolution from right-wing members attacking the course. After right-wingers on the Denver-area school board in Jefferson County, Colorado, proposed a curriculum committee to “monitor” the course for supposedly objectionable content, students began boycotting classes. Colorado parents are also organizing in an effort to stop the Jefferson County board from implementing its censorship panel. (One of the parents has contacted TFN for advice on building an effective grassroots campaign.)

And today the American Civil Liberties Union and seven other groups sent a letter to the Jefferson County school board criticizing the attacks on the A.P. U.S. History course. The letter says in part:

“The board’s attempt to monitor school curricula to promote certain viewpoints means privileging the beliefs of some individuals over others. It is precisely this form of viewpoint discrimination by government that our constitutional system is designed to prevent.”

Back in Texas, SBOE member Thomas Ratliff, R-Mount Pleasant, has expressed his disgust with the political attacks on the AP U.S. History course from some of his board colleagues. He abstained on the resolution vote and has pointed out (as does the resolution itself) that the course saved $16 million in tuition costs last year for students who earned college credit by doing well in the course. That means this new political witch hunt launched by Tea Party activists could cost Texas families millions of dollars if it ends up killing the AP program in the Lone Star State.

Ratliff also sent his fellow SBOE members an internal memo, with the subject line “Self-Inflicted Wounds,” explaining that the anti-AP resolution was yet another example of a fringe political controversy that discredits the board in the eyes of the Legislature:

“The legislature takes authority from us because we do things like we did last week. We spent HOURS listening to public testimony and debating amendments to a non-binding, unenforceable, politically motivated resolution.  In fact, we spent more time on this issue than any other issue before us last week, including the adoption of Social Studies, Math and Fine Arts instructional materials, adopting a payout rate from the $30 billion Permanent School Fund to pay for those materials, and the GPA requirements for teacher certification programs.  I don’t know about you, but I would think those issues would justify more time and deliberation than a non-binding resolution. If we ever hope to regain some of our previous jurisdiction, we need to put politics aside and put our focus back on real issues facing the classroom.”

Apparently, one of Ratliff’s colleagues responded by leaking that internal memo to a right-wing fanatic with an email list. That fanatic then forwarded the memo to her list along with a nasty message in which she attacked Ratliff and called for his impeachment. We wouldn’t be surprised if Ratliff comes to the conclusion that a number of his board colleagues really don’t give a damn about educating Texas kids. They’re more interested in censoring textbooks and using public schools to promote their own political beliefs. And they’ll do that even if it means stabbing a colleague in the back or destroying a popular and well-respected AP course.

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