Legislation urges educators to “teach the controversy” and allows citizens to challenge curricula
State and local legislatures in the United States are experimenting with new ways to target the topics taught in science classes, and it seems to be paying dividends. Florida’s legislature approved a bill on May 5 that would enable residents to challenge what educators teach students. And two other states have already approved non-binding legislation this year urging teachers to embrace ‘academic freedom’ and present the full spectrum of views on evolution and climate change. This would give educators license to treat evolution and intelligent design as equally valid theories, or to present climate change as scientifically contentious.
“The strategies of creationists have gotten more sophisticated,” says Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education(NCSE) in Oakland, California. The first academic freedom bills popped up in the early 2000s, but until this year only three had become law: one in Mississippi in 2006, one in Louisiana in 2008 and another in Tennessee in 2012.
Eleven bills designed to alter science-education standards have been proposed this year across the United States. A handful of those measures have either abandoned the traditional academic freedom model for more roundabout methods, or are using watered-down versions of it.
The Florida legislation, for example, does not try to change state or district education standards. Instead, it enables any tax-paying resident of a given county to file complaints about the curriculum of the schools in their district. A complaint would trigger a public hearing to determine if the material in question is “accurate, balanced, noninflammatory, current, free of pornography … and suited to students’ needs”, according to the legislation.
“But who decides what ‘balanced’ and ‘noninflammatory’ mean?” asks Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, based in New York City. Currently, instructional materials come from an approved list provided by the state, she says.
State Representative Byron Donalds (Republican, Florida District 80), who sponsored the bill, does not think that it is anti-science. Instead, he says, it gives parents the power to hold school districts accountable for what their children are learning. “One of the key things about this bill, and why I think it passed, is that we didn’t target any one subject matter.”