Evolution and creationism taught side-by-side. Climate change presented as a controversial hypothesis. If these proposed bills in Florida pass before the end the legislative session this month, the fate of science education in some school districts would be threatened.
Two new bills—one passed in the house (HB 989), and one making its way through the senate (SB 1210)—give anyone, not just parents, the ability to question teaching materials in a school district and receive a public hearing with an "unbiased and qualified hearing officer." This is hardly odd in a state where politicians once banned mention of man-made climate change in the government.
The bills are framed in as way to give communities power, but they are among 11 pieces of legislation debated in state houses this year deemed anti-science by critics, and which seek to change the way science is taught in US schools.
The Florida bills don't explicitly target climate change and evolution education, but Port Orange, Fla. science teacher Brandon Haught is worried nonetheless. "With this bill, we're giving a citizen—who can't believe evolution is being taught—more power and more weight, equalling out someone who actually knows what they're talking about," Haught told me.
Haught is the quintessential subject matter expert. He's written a book on the battle over teaching evolution in Florida schools, and he's also a co-founder of the non-profit Florida Citizens for Science, which has been pushing to kill the bills.
Haught worries the requirement to hold a public hearing over complaints could drag out the time-sensitive process of buying new texts for the school year. That could possibly even lead people with religious agendas or anti-evidence beliefs to "bully" a school board to include texts that cast doubt on climate change, for example, just to meet the deadline, he added.
The bills were created by Florida Citizens' Alliance, a conservative advocacy organization which has lobbied heavily to see them passed. It collected affidavits with residents' complaints about textbooks and compiled a list of "objectionable materials"—both of which mention climate change and evolution.
One world history text is charged with "religious indoctrination" for teaching "children that we descended from apes." Similarly, Collier County resident Deirdre Clemons complained that "evolution is now taught as fact"—part of what she called "globalist brainwashing in public schools."
"I have witnessed children being taught that Global Warming is a reality," Mary Ellen Cash, also from Collier County, wrote in her affidavit. "Now that it is colder and the country is experiencing repeated Cold Waves, the new term is Climate Change. When parents question these theories, they are ignored."
Keith Flaugh, co-director of the Florida Citizens' Alliance, a libertarian advocacy group, argued the bills are about transparency and giving communities greater say in school materials, which he said are currently being chosen by "politicized" school districts and "establishment" textbook companies.
"The science here is not proven on either side," Flaugh said. "There are lots of scientists on both sides of that equation: Creationism versus the theory of evolution. They're both theories. And all we're asking for is both sides of the discussion in a balanced way be put in front of the students."
For Haught, that's the kind of argument that raises red flags. "Theory," as a scientific term, is not the same as "theory" in common usage, he said: It denotes "a well-supported observation" offering "the highest level of understanding in science."
Both climate change and evolution are indeed widely viewed as settled, fact-based science within the scientific community, including NASA. But controversy endures on the margins, especially in states like Florida that are largely Christian and conservative. The National Science Teachers Association, which advocates for both climate change and evolution education, found in a 2011 survey that 82 per cent of teachers encountered students who were skeptical of climate change, and 54 per cent encountered that skepticism from parents.
Those views funnel up into state politics. The National Center for Science Education has become a defacto national tracker of the Florida bill and others taking aim at evolution and climate change in schools. Deputy director Glenn Branch expects about a half dozen to a dozen such bills a year. With 11 bills thus far, 2017 is off to a busy, but not unprecedented start, he said. And it's not clear having a climate skeptic in the White House has had an impact, he added.
And while some—like one Arkansas bill aimed at allowing creationism education—have died in committees, the Florida bills look likely to become law, Haught said.
Florida Citizens for Science could still lobby Republican Florida governor Rick Scott to veto the bills, assuming the senate bill passes—an unlikely last-ditch effort. "After that, it's building a network willing to stand up on a local level," Haught said. "Now it's up to you to keep an eye on your local school board."
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