AP History Teacher and Students File Lawsuit Against Arkansas LEARNS ACT ‘Indoctrination’ ban

Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate Photo Source: Tess Vrbin/Arkansas Advocate

A Little Rock, Arkansas, high school teacher and her students have filed a federal lawsuit against Arkansas Governor Sara Huckabee Sanders and the Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Education, Jacob Oliva, over the state’s ban on critical race theory and “indoctrination” under the LEARNS Act.

The Lawsuit was filed earlier this week in the US District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas on behalf of AP African American Studies teacher Ruthie Walls, three of her students, and the students’ parents. The plaintiffs are represented by civil rights attorneys Mike Laux and Austin Porter.

Walls, An AP African American Studies teacher at Little Rock Central High, the historic landmark of racial desegregation in American public schools, argues in her lawsuit that section 16 of the LEARNS Act is a “brazen, political attempt to silence speech and expression.”

The LEARNS Act is a newly enacted comprehensive education reform package that outlines issues ranging from teacher salaries to educator and student incentives to student testing and graduation requirements.

While it does include benefits like raising the state’s minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000, it's not without elements of controversy. Wells says Section 16 blocks her students from the full benefits of the AP course as the African American Studies class is stripped of its full AP status.

The AP class is currently being offered in Little Rock Central High and five other high schools in the state and is a pilot program that has not been vetted by the state's administration. At the heart of the issue is the hotly contested debate of critical race theory in public school education and how it ties into the pilot program. On her first day in office, Governor Sanders signed an executive order that banned the “ indoctrination” of public school students with studies including critical race theory.

Wells’ legal team argues that the LEARNS Act, which incorporates similar language found in the executive order banning indoctrination, is a direct violation of the First and 14th Amendments to the US Constitution. Wells’ legal team issued a statement that argued the LEARNS Act “is unworkably vague and oppressive, and it discriminates on the basis of race. Section 16 is just another front in the culture war being waged by right-wing ideologues.”

Governor Sanders defended her stance through a statement issued from her office which read in part, “In the State of Arkansas, we will not indoctrinate our kids and teach them to hate America or each other. It’s sad the radical left continues to lie and play political games with our kids’ futures.”

Arkansas Education Secretary Jacob Oliva also pushed back against the lawsuit, arguing that the AP program’s course framework was updated after discussions with the College Board, which is the governing body that manages the AP program. In doing so, he says the department approved the course, and the Arkansas Department of Education did not violate state law.

“The lawsuit falsely accuses ADE of not allowing students to participate in the AP African American Studies pilot program and stripped them from the benefits that the course provides — a total lie,” Oliva defended. “The department advised schools they could offer local course credit to students who complete the pilot, and six schools participated.”

While the pilot program can be taught, students do not enjoy the same benefits as with other AP programs. Currently, the class can only be taught as an elective course, not a credit course, and expenses, including the cost for students to take the associated AP assessment, are not covered.

The lawsuit is asking the court to find Section 16 of the LEARNS Act unconstitutional and to issue an injunction that would keep that section of the law from being further enacted, along with rolling back the way it has been enforced so far.

Nadia El-Yaouti
Nadia El-Yaouti
Nadia El-Yaouti is a postgraduate from James Madison University, where she studied English and Education. Residing in Central Virginia with her husband and two young daughters, she balances her workaholic tendencies with a passion for travel, exploring the world with her family.
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