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High school students sue Arkansas over restricted African American studies

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Seventy years since the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, a group of teachers and students in Arkansas are suing the state over a law that was used to restrict an advanced placement African American Studies course. They say the law is vague, and it creates a chilling effect because it tries to limit how race is talked about in classrooms. Josie Lenora with Little Rock Public Radio reports, they recently got a mixed ruling.

JOSIE LENORA, BYLINE: Ruthie Walls is a history teacher at Central High School in Little Rock. She is one of a handful of educators who teach AP African American Studies. Last August, she was preparing for the school year when she found out her class was canceled by the state.

RUTHIE WALLS: No one wants to get news like that. I was taken off guard, and I had to continue with the day.

LENORA: The Department of Education used a new state law to remove the AP African American Studies course from its official AP offerings. The law prohibits the, quote, "indoctrination with ideologies." No material or teacher can encourage discrimination or teach that one race is better than another. The law also prohibits critical race theory without defining the term. Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders says Arkansas needed the law, which is similar to others passed in some Republican legislatures.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: Our goal is never going to be to teach kids what to think but how to think.

LENORA: The law says students are allowed to learn about ideas, history, and matters of the day. And that, Walls said, is what AP African American Studies does.

WALLS: With the institution of slavery, slave codes, the Jim Crow Era, lynching, police brutality, the prison industrial complex.

LENORA: Walls continued to teach her class this school year but only as an elective. And student Sadie Belle Reynolds, who is white, appreciates the lessons.

SADIE BELLE REYNOLDS: We already know slavery was a big part of America and some of these African American points of view. It - but it's just, like, why not dive deeper into it? Why do I have to go on TikTok or Instagram or on Google to learn more about this stuff?

LENORA: After cutting the AP class, the Department of Education said it needed to review the curriculum to make sure it adheres with state law. It reinstated the course as a full AP class after Walls and others filed a lawsuit in March. Education officials say the timing is just a coincidence. Walls says, the law still needs to be challenged in court.

WALLS: There are a lot of topics, of course, with issues of race that are sensitive, so we often wonder how deep into the subject we can go.

LENORA: The goal of the lawsuit is to strike any limits on the teaching of race, says, Attorney Mike Laux.

MIKE LAUX: I think it's poorly written because it's supposed to be vague. It's supposed to be inscrutable. And it's supposed to chill.

LENORA: Last month a federal judge said the law does not limit speech but did issue a preliminary injunction that applies only to Walls and another teacher in the lawsuit. He said teachers in Arkansas are allowed to bring up topics that could be classified as critical race theory while the lawsuit goes forward. For NPR News, I'm Josie Lenora in Little Rock. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Josie Lenora
[Copyright 2024 KUAR]