The elective course was reviewed to see if it complied with Youngkin executive order banning ‘inherently divisive concepts’

Virginia’s education department proposed dozens of revisions to an elective course on African American history, striking some references to white supremacy and systemic racism among other changes, documents show.

A spokesman for the state education department said the review is still ongoing, and no changes have been implemented yet. But some professors involved in the creation of the earlier curriculum are concerned that the proposed revisions would dilute some of the topics and language explored in the course if implemented.

The department has not publicly released the proposed changes, which were submitted last August. The review was revealed in public records obtained by watchdog group American Oversight and shared with The Washington Post.

The proposed revisions were part of a review of whether the African American history elective complied with Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order banning “inherently divisive concepts” from the classroom.

“The elective course is a comprehensive exploration of African American history, with a specific focus on African American history in Virginia, and fully discusses all aspects of African American history in its entirety — both good and bad,” education department spokesman Todd Reid said in a statement.

The order, which Youngkin announced after he took office in 2022, has previously been used to remove a number of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. It also was the basis for his administration’s short-lived “tip line” for parents and students to report teachers accused of teaching “divisive” concepts.

But the order has been used sparingly since. Last year, Youngkin cited it to call for a review of an Advanced Placement course on African American studies shortly after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made headlines when his administration rejected the course. The state later said the AP course did not violate the executive order.

But a similar review was also conducted of the African American elective course, the records obtained by American Oversight show. The group filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking records of all policies that were ended, materials that were removed, and changes made to the state’s curriculum under the executive order. The African American history course revisions were the only new changes proposed since February 2022 in the documents.

The proposed revisions are an example of how political decisions have the potential to affect classroom content. The documents show that the review offered more than 40 suggestions to the curriculum outline and course content. Many proposed changes focused on language, like changing the term “racism” to “discriminatory practices.” Others were more substantial, like striking a definition of “Black joy” and removing lessons on implicit bias and equity.

“White supremacy and institutional racism does not exist according to this document,” said Derrick Lanois, an assistant professor of history at Norfolk State University who helped to develop and implement the course when it was introduced in 2020. The Post shared the proposed revisions with Lanois and several other scholars.

Reid, the education department spokesman, said the course was reviewed under the executive order by professional staff on the department’s history team. They reviewed its compliance not only with the Youngkin order but with new history standards approved in April 2023.

Other state guidance and documents were reviewed under Youngkin’s Executive Order 1 in February 2022. Reid said he did not know why the African American elective course was not reviewed at that time but said that at some point in 2023 VDOE leadership realized the course needed to be examined.

The African American history elective course was announced in 2020 under Gov. Ralph Northam (D). It was developed by VDOE in partnership with Virtual Virginia, WHRO Public Media, and committees of history and social science public school educators, university historians, and college professors. The course launched in a limited number of school districts during the 2020-21 school year, then later expanded.

According to Reid, 45 divisions now offer the high school course in 89 schools, with about 1,700 students enrolled.

Reid told The Post earlier this month that the revisions would be implemented for the 2024-2025 school year. But later he said he discussed it further with VDOE leaders, who said the course review was still ongoing. He emphasized that none of the revisions have been adopted.

Reid called the African American course a “unicorn” as the only elective course developed by the state. As such, he said there is no standard process, timeline or next steps for the review.

The changes to the elective come after the state was embroiled in controversy for revisions to its history standards, and as there have been efforts and legislation across the country to limit what schools teach about topics such as race, racism and sexuality in the classroom.

While revising its history standards last year, a process that happens every seven years, the education department was criticized for “whitewashing” history after it rejected a version of the standards developed under Northam and proposed an alternative that critics said placed less emphasis on marginalized groups. The document also included errors such as a characterization of Indigenous people as “immigrants,” and omitted references to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Juneteenth holidays.

Chioma Chukwu, interim executive director of American Oversight, said the records about the proposed changes to the elective course “show the same pattern of attempts to whitewash and erase America’s legacy of racism that we’ve seen in other states, like Florida. While those in power have supposedly sought to shield students from ‘divisive concepts,’ it is clear that such measures are about protecting partisan interests and not about protecting children,” Chukwu said in a statement.

Other historians and experts contacted by The Post who helped develop the elective course’s curriculum said they were not aware of the proposed changes but raised concerns about some of the suggestions “sanitizing” the language of the course.

Lanois said he was struck by how many references were changed to broader terms like “discriminatory practices.” He said the proposed revisions seemed to downplay the role that the United States and Virginia played in racism, rather focusing on individual acts of racism.

One revision suggested changing a learning objective in the course from “Investigate and understand that the University of Virginia was an institution on the forefront of the Eugenics movement and that the Commonwealth used this pseudo-science to control African Americans.” to “investigate and describe the Eugenics movement and that the Commonwealth used it.”

In another instance, the curriculum references a quote from King calling “White moderates” a “great stumbling block” in the fight for equality. A proposed revision suggests changing the language from “White moderates” to “those moderates.”

Stephanie Richmond, an associate professor of history at Norfolk State University who also helped develop and train teachers on the course, said it seemed like VDOE staff was trying to maintain the spirit of the course while complying with the executive order. But she said the broader challenges to curriculum happening around the country are especially concerning.

“I think it’s really a disturbing trend that infringes on the academic freedom of educators … to teach what they see as important,” Richmond said.

When asked about the criticisms, Reid emphasized that no changes have been adopted.

The course, Reid said, “is a whole picture, both good and bad, of the history here in Virginia and nationally. It does not shy away from anything.”

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