A new wave of bills takes aim at science in the classroom

A dueling campaign to influence science teachers' approach to teaching climate change highlights how classrooms have emerged as a battleground in the American political war over climate change. (Pixabay)

In Idaho, lawmakers removed references to climate change from the state’s science standards. In Alabama and Indiana, they passed resolutions urging support for educators who teach “diverse” views on climate change, evolution and human cloning. And in Florida, the legislature on Friday adopted one bill that would give educators and students more freedom to express religious beliefs in school, and a second that would give residents new power to oppose classroom materials they dislike — including science textbooks.

Across the country, proposals that would influence how topics like climate change and evolution are taught in public schools have gained traction. Eleven such measures have been introduced in nine Republican-dominated states since January. Of those 11, three have been adopted.  The Florida bills await the signature of Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Four bills in other states died shortly after introduction, while two others narrowly failed.

Proponents say the measures take aim at what they see as an inflexible secular culture in public schools — one that prevents educators from teaching a full range of views.

“Whether it be evolution or the argument about global warming, we don’t want teachers to be afraid to converse about such things,” said Republican Indiana state Sen. Jeff Raatz, who successfully pushed through a resolution to protect teachers who do so.

After an election in which Republicans expanded their domination in statehouses and in Washington, these initiatives have found increasingly receptive audiences — a development that has left science education advocates feeling uneasy.

“They vary a lot, but what they have in common is, if passed, they would all tend to undermine the integrity of science education,” said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that tracks and advocates against such legislation. “That’s why we’re against them, science teachers are against them, school boards are against them.”

The group has been tracking state bills for more than two decades, and based on their data from the past 14 years, 2017’s proposals are not only more numerous than usual, they’ve gotten further than ever before.

The bills take an array of approaches. Some are new. Florida, for example, is the first state to pass something like its classroom materials bill. But the most common are “academic freedom” acts, which since 2004 have been introduced more than 50 times in 20 states. The bills aim to increase debate over topics like climate change and evolution, and would shield educators from reprimand for teaching dissenting views. From January through March, they were introduced in six states.

Opponents argue the measures inject controversy where most scientists see none. Studies have shown that scientists are in near unanimous agreement that humans have contributed to global climate change. Similar consensus exists on evolution. But there is no universal standard for how to teach these topics, and surveys indicate that teachers sometimes give students mixed messages about them.

Neither supporters nor critics can say for sure why so much momentum has built around the legislative actions in recent months. John West, vice president of the Discovery Institute, a conservative think-tank behind many of the bills, said his organization hasn’t made any special push this year.

“After a presidential election or congressional election, when you have new people or new blood in places, then you have a burst of activity,” he said.

But Lisa Hoyos, director of Climate Parents, a Sierra Club initiative that supports climate change education, believes states are taking cues from a Trump administration that “is openly hostile to evidence-based climate science.”

A Fight In Florida

Of all the measures introduced this year, the one that may create the most direct opportunity to sway how students learn about science was approved Friday in Florida, home to 2.7 million public school students.

Although the bill doesn’t explicitly cite climate change or any other topic, it mandates that school districts create and fund a formal process by which any county resident, regardless of whether they have children in the district, can object to materials like books, media and lesson plans used in classrooms. A spokeswoman for the state’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, declined to say whether he would sign the bill into law.

The group behind the bill, the Florida Citizens Alliance, says it started paying attention to classroom materials about two years ago.

“We were getting a lot of complaints about religious indoctrination, political indoctrination, revisionist history and even pornography in the textbooks,” said the group’s managing director, Keith Flaugh.

They have since compiled an 11-page list of materials they find objectionable, and 25 members have signed affidavits outlining their attempts — mostly unsuccessful — to contest them. Among their targets are books that teach that “global warming is a reality” and that “humans are just another animal.”

Science education isn’t the only mark. Another point of contention is Common Core, a national effort to reform education standards. Other complaints include an economics textbook that critiques Ronald Reagan’s economic policies, and an “offensive and divisive” classroom assignment that presents the legacy of Thanksgiving as ambiguous for Native Americans. Many mention the Toni Morrison novels “Beloved” and“The Bluest Eye” for “graphically depicting black on black crimes, bestiality, sodomy, incest, rape, infanticide, murder and pedophilia.”

Their attempts to monitor how classroom materials are chosen have been foiled by school districts that make those decisions in closed meetings. Under current state law, only parents have the right to contest materials in their child’s classroom. Those without schoolchildren have little say in the process.

In November, the group approached state Rep. Byron Donalds with the bill proposal. Donalds, a Republican whose wife sits on his county’s school board, said he took to the idea right away. Parents are sometimes too busy to engage in the “arduous” process of reviewing classroom materials, he said, so it makes sense to give others the opportunity.

“It’s not just parents that are stakeholders in our students, it’s also the people who fund our schools,” he said. “Typically things don’t get worse when more people are looking at them. They get better.”

Under the bill, school districts must issue lists of all materials in classrooms, school libraries and reading lists. Districts would provide an outside “unbiased and qualified hearing officer” to consider objections and make recommendations to school boards, which would have the final say.

The bill has plenty of critics, including the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Florida School Boards Association. The National Science Teachers Association’s executive director, David Evans, described it as “a way of banning books by folks who basically don’t like the results of science.”

Science teacher Brandon Haught, a spokesman for Florida Citizens for Science and author of “Going Ape: Florida’s Battles over Evolution in the Classroom,” worries the bill could be used “as a bludgeon” by “people with an anti-science agenda.”

“Creationists, climate change deniers, anti-vaccine people — it gives them a much stronger voice in deciding what our students learn,” Haught said.

Haught says he’s worried that financially strapped districts, reluctant to pay for a hearing officer, may cave to objections, regardless of their merits.

But Flaugh, of Florida Citizens Alliance, waved off the concern, saying members of his group would volunteer to be hearing officers.

The group supported legislation that also passed Friday to protect students and educators who wish to express their religious beliefs in school from discrimination. If signed by the governor, Flaugh said his group will use it in conjunction with the instructional materials bill to contest textbooks that demonstrate “bias toward Islam and seldom mention Christianity,” and promote those that push for a Christian view of the origins of life.

“Darwin’s theory is a theory, and the biblical view is a theory, and our kids should be taught both in a balanced way,” he said.

Kara Gross, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the bill will allow teachers, personnel and administrators to advance their religious beliefs in school. She said she expects the bill to be litigated on constitutional grounds.

‘A Strong Suggestion’

As lawmakers in Florida considered classroom materials this spring, lawmakers in other states were considering a slew of other bills that could shape science education. In March, Idaho lawmakers stripped five key points from the state’s science standards that referred to human impact on the climate. An Iowa bill would have prohibited the state from adopting national science standards that address climate change and evolution, but died in committee.

The bluntest bill of all came in Arkansas: It would have allowed science teachers to teach creationism alongside evolution; it, too, failed to advance.

In six states — Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas — lawmakers rehashed old fights around “academic freedom” bills.

The proposals have been championed for more than a decade by the Discovery Institute, best known for promoting intelligent design, a theory that posits an intelligent entity had a hand in the origins and direction of life.

The first effort was introduced in Alabama in 2004. Federal courts have ruled that teaching creationism alongside evolution is unconstitutional, but the bill asserted it did not intend to inject religion in school. Instead, the legislation was framed as a way to promote critical thinking by granting educators the right to teach students about the debate over “controversial” topics without fear of punishment. The Alabama bill failed in 2004 and again in 2005, but by 2006 lawmakers in a few other states were trying it out.

West said the bills are necessary to protect against a “dogmatic and narrow” teaching of evolution, and to provide “a safe haven for teachers” who want to teach research that questions the limits of evolutionary theory.

Initially, the bills only targeted evolution and the origins of life, but around 2008, they began mentioning global warming and human cloning as well. Since then, they’ve proliferated.

While West insists the bill’s protections are narrow, Hoyos of Climate Parents believes they would embolden teachers inclined to teach unscientific or politicized views. She noted that the Heartland Institute, a conservative think-tank, recently launched a campaign to mail books and DVDs promoting climate skepticism to every science teacher in America.

“A teacher could use that pseudoscience Heartland content as their whole unit on climate change, and there would be nothing the school board could do about it,” she said.

Of the dozens of academic freedom bills introduced over the years, just three have become law: In Mississippi in 2006, Louisiana in 2008 and Tennessee in 2012. Nearly all the rest died before getting a full vote — a fate met this year by the bills in Iowa and Texas. South Dakota’s bill cleared its Senate, a rarity, but not its House. Oklahoma’s died before a final vote in late April.

To help ease the path for the bills, lawmakers in two states this year took a brand new approach: They proposed academic freedom measures as non-binding resolutions, which are easier to pass because they do not carry the power of law, but still send a signal to educators about where their elected officials stand. Indiana Sen. Raatz said he proposed an academic freedom bill years ago there, but “we didn’t even get a hearing.” This year, his fellow senators passed the resolution with little fuss.

“A resolution is shy of law, correct, but it’s a strong suggestion by the general assembly suggesting that this is appropriate behavior in the classroom,” he said.

In Alabama, where the nation’s first academic freedom act was proposed, such bills have died before ever reaching a vote six times. But after converting it to a non-binding resolution, it passed both chambers, winning a final vote from the Senate last week.

“Hopefully this will give teachers some comfort if they choose to go off the beaten path,” said the resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Mack Butler. “It’s just different than when I was a kid, with the political correctness. Everyone is terrified now. You can’t even say Merry Christmas.”

This story was produced as part of a collaboration between FRONTLINE and The GroundTruth Project examining climate change and its impact on women and children.