Jacob Oliva and Sarah Sanders Brian Chilson

Back in the very first days of Gov. Sarah Sanders’ administration, in January 2023, she signed a series of executive orders that set the tone for what was to follow — among them, a directive to Education Secretary Jacob Oliva to prevent “indoctrination” and “critical race theory” from corrupting Arkansas’s schools.

Was it all talk, or did the state Department of Education actually take steps to change what kids in Arkansas are being taught about race, history and civics?

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Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Josh Snyder has part of the answer in a fine story in Sunday’s paper: Yes, they did. Though it’s not clear how much effect the changes had in classrooms, the education department overhauled a list of resources it maintains for teachers on its website to comply with Sanders’ order on “indoctrination” and another banning the word “Latinx” from official state documents. Snyder obtained emails department officials sent to staff in February 2023 asking them to review documents containing the word “Latinx.” The department also asked staff to make sure they weren’t providing links to websites that use the term.

“The outside resources need to be checked for the term Latinx. If the term appears, we have been directed to delete the resource,” an official said in one email.

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The timing of the Dem-Gaz story is a bit odd, in that the communications in question are mostly from over a year ago, but no matter — it’s essential reading for anyone concerned about Arkansas schools and the education department’s new agenda under Sanders and Oliva.

Among the “resources” subsequently removed by the state were links to materials from the Library of Congress, Brown University Library, Yale’s online library, UMass Amherst, National Geographic, the American Bar Association, Selma Online, the Central Arkansas Library System’s Butler Center and the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

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The state also added materials to the list, Synder reported, including primary source materials for teaching Arkansas history and a website called 1776 Unites that appears to highlight Black academics with heterodox views:

The 1776 Unites curriculum was put together through the Woodson Center, a nonprofit founded by social activist Robert L. Woodson Sr. Woodson himself is sometimes described as a conservative thinker, and has lectured on conservative subjects in the past.

According to the project website, the curriculum was developed by “a team of independent scholars, counselors, and role models,” and “maintains a special focus on stories that celebrate black excellence, reject victimhood culture, and showcase African-Americans who have prospered by embracing America’s founding ideals.”

As has become par for the course under Sanders, the education department wouldn’t give a meaningful response to questions posed by Snyder:

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Education Department spokesperson Kimberly Mundell said in an email response to questions about how the agency decides what belongs on its resources lists that items on the lists are aligned to Arkansas Academic Standards. The resources are reviewed annually and released by way of a commissioner’s memo, she said.

All that said — does it actually matter what links are on the education department’s website? Are Arkansas social studies teachers actually referencing lists of materials from the state to guide their day-to-day lesson planning? Maybe not. But the chilling effect is real. When Sanders talks about cracking down on “critical race theory” in Arkansas schools, superintendents and principals and teachers surely become more wary of teaching anything that might attract the state’s ire.

And that’s just the executive order. Recall that Arkansas LEARNS, the education overhaul championed by Sanders, wrote a similar prohibition on “indoctrination” into state law — a change that Oliva used to justify the state’s decision last summer to refuse to count a pilot AP African American Studies towards graduation requirements. Recall also the laughably clumsy list of examples of supposed “indoctrination” the education department compiled for public release when the African American Studies decision attracted national attention.

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We don’t know how rigorously the education department is actually policing such things, but the message to schools is clear: When it comes to teaching about the terrible history of race in the U.S., be careful.