Each year around this time, state lawmakers file thousands of new bills in statehouses across the nation. Many of these bills would, if signed into law, affect public education in one way or another. Some of these education bills would directly or indirectly change the teaching of science and or evolution in public schools. Some of these science-and-evolution education bills would be good for students and teachers. Some would be bad, pedagogically speaking. Some would invite costly legal challenges, which when it happens is always ugly for a school district and the community it serves, whatever the outcome.
Calling legislation good, bad or ugly does not, of course, fully capture or express all the complexities of science education law and policy making, but there are far less helpful ways to catalogue bills. The National Center for Science Education (NCSE), for example, just throws everything it doesn’t like into the “anti-evolution” bucket on its website, as if different lawmakers in different states advancing different ends via different texts are really all out to get “evolution.” Because the description “anti-evolution” is more about politics than anything else, here are the working words of the bills that the NCSE tracks, unadorned, followed by our brief take on each
1. Indiana Senate Bill 89 (IN SB 89) originally provided that:
The governing body of a school corporation may require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science, within the school corporation.
Our take: As previously discussed, it is unconstitutional for the state to teach creationism, and equally unconstitutional for a state legislature to authorize a state agency to require the teaching of creationism in public schools. Discovery Institute opposed this bill because we do not support teaching creationism in public schools.
To pass out of the Indiana Senate, IN SB 89 was later amended to read:
The governing body of a school corporation may offer instruction on various theories of the origin of life. The curriculum for the course must include theories from multiple religions, which may include, but is not limited to, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Scientology.
Our take: The amended bill would advance multiple religions instead of just one. This change did not cure the original defect. It made it worse. But Democratic Senator Simpson insisted on the amendment. She was trying to kill the bill by making it generally repugnant within the statehouse, inexpedient to legislate, and administratively unimplementable. The amended bill died in the House, so her plan seems to have worked. Fortunately, Indiana will next session have the opportunity to pass academic freedom legislation, which may look something like this.
2. New Hampshire House Bill 1148 (NH HB 1148) requires:
… evolution to be taught in the public schools of this state as a theory, including the theorists’ political and ideological viewpoints and their position on the concept of atheism.
Our take: As previously discussed, this language would invite costly legal challenge and would not serve the needs of public high school science students, who can go on to college if they wish and take an interdisciplinary humanities (e.g., history of ideas) course addressing the subjects of this bill. That is, it is both ugly, legally speaking, and bad for students, in a pedagogical sense.
3. New Hampshire House Bill 1457 (NH HB 1457) requires:
… science teachers to instruct pupils that proper scientific inquire [sic] results from not committing to any one theory or hypothesis, no matter how firmly it appears to be established, and that scientific and technological innovations based on new evidence can challenge accepted scientific theories or modes.
Our take: As previously discussed, this language would not obviously invite legal challenge, but it could be used to inculcate general, indiscriminate skepticism about scientific theorizing, which would not serve the needs of public high school science students. The New Hampshire House Education Committee rejected that version of bill, but later rewrote it in the form of an academic freedom bill. There has not been an opportunity for public comment on the rewrite, and no hearing has been scheduled, so it seems the new, good bill will not advance in this session. It may come up again next session, however.
4. Alabama House Bill 133 (AL HB 133) provides, in part, that:
Each local board of education in the state may adopt a policy that authorizes a high school student to be excused from school to attend a class in religious instruction conducted by a private entity if all of the following are satisfied:
(1) The parent or guardian of the student gives written consent.
(2) The sponsoring entity maintains attendance records and makes them available to the public school the student attends.
(3) Transportation to and from the place of instruction, including transportation for any student with disabilities, is the complete responsibility of the sponsoring entity, parent, or guardian.
(4) The sponsoring entity makes provisions for and assumes liability for the student who is excused.
(5) No public funds are expended and no public school personnel are involved in providing the religious instruction.
Our take: this bill would count qualified off-site religious instruction toward the satisfaction of certain high school graduation requirements. The text of the bill has nothing to do with science or evolution. Still, the NCSE dumped this one into the “anti-evolution” bucket, as if pro-religion and anti-evolution were the same. This bill would if passed probably attract an ugly lawsuit, and would not serve students as well as would academic freedom legislation.
5. Missouri House Bill (MO HB 1227) provides, in part, as follows:
If scientific theory concerning biological origin is taught in a course of study, biological evolution and biological intelligent design shall be taught.
If scientific theory concerning biological origin is taught in a textbook, the textbook shall give equal treatment to biological evolution and biological intelligent design.” (Emphases added.)
Our take: Although phrased conditionally, this bill would essentially mandate teaching intelligent design in at least some public high school science classrooms, since at least some teachers in the state will teach on “biological origin.” Discovery Institute opposes mandating intelligent design in public schools, and opposes legislation that even comes close to a mandate. Such laws if passed would focus unwanted and even career-killing attention on scholars working within the intelligent design paradigm. Bills, like doctors, should first do no harm.
6. Missouri House Bill (MO HB 1276) reads, in part, that no:
… administrator shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of biological or chemical evolution whenever these subjects are taught within the course curriculum schedule.
Our take: This bill would protect academic freedom. Specifically, it would protect from administrative reprisal (a common problem) those teachers who would teach in an objective manner both sides of the pertinent scientific controversies. That’s a good thing.
7. Oklahoma House Bill 1551 (OK HB 1551) reads, in part, as follows:
… teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught.
… administrator[s] shall not prohibit any teacher in a school district in this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught.
Our take: This bill is also an academic freedom bill. It would protect from administrative reprisal those teachers who would teach in an objective manner both sides of the scientific controversies. Still good.
8. Oklahoma Senate Bill 1742 (OK SB 1742) reads, in part, as follows:
A teacher shall teach the material presented in the standard science textbook and may use supplemental textbooks and instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner.
Our take: Although worded a little differently, this bill is also an academic freedom bill. It would protect from administrative reprisal those teachers who would teach in an objective manner both sides of the aforementioned scientific controversies.
So that’s three for academic freedom, and five for something else. The academic freedom bills are good because they (1) don’t invite legal challenge, (2) alleviate teacher and administrator fear about teaching fully and accurately and (3) reduce uncertainty over whether and how to handle touchy science subjects. In so doing they encourage more teaching on evolution, not less. Because academic freedom legislation is legally and pedagogically sound, tried and true in Louisiana, science education reformers in other states should come together in adopting Discovery Institute’s model academic freedom bill. That would help the NCSE, once it got over its conniption fit, better understand why the good guys are working together.