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Academic Freedom Legislation: Understanding South Dakota’s SB 55

Sarah Chaffee

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South Dakota’s SB 55, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Monroe, just passed the Senate.

The text of SB 55 reads:

No teacher may be prohibited from helping students understand, analyze, critique, or review in an objective scientific manner the strengths and weaknesses of scientific information presented in courses being taught which are aligned with the content standards established pursuant to § 13-3-48.

The Argus-Leader has been covering the bill’s journey — in a fairly evenhanded way. Several of the Argus-Leader‘s sources, however, appear to be misinformed about the scope of the bill. No, SB 55 doesn’t give educators permission “to teach anything they please.”

In an article written after the passage of the bill by the Senate Education Committee, the Argus-Leader wrote:

Meanwhile, opponents said the bill, if approved, could have the effect of allowing teachers to weave desired information into a curriculum where it might not be accepted as part of the state standard.

“What this is saying is you can bypass what your local school board is saying,” Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, said. “A vote for this is a vote against your local school board.”

In an article after the chamber passed SB 55:

“With the passage of this bill, that teacher hired by the school district to teach the curriculum that the school board deems appropriate could go off on other tangents and there would be no way that the principal who does the evaluation by law would have to either reprimand them or bring them in,” Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, said.

Glenn Branch, deputy director for the National Center for Science Education, Inc., said the “unclear and flabby” language of the 36-word proposal could open up state science standards to alternate theories like Creationism, climate change denial and white supremacy.

“They’ll be able to teach anything they please,” Branch said.

The bill could also create serious legal problems for school districts as they could face lawsuits from teachers who are disciplined for not being able to speak to weaknesses of scientific theories or from parents who feel teachers explaining alternate theories under the law violate their children’s rights under the Establishment Clause, he said.

“This is a recipe for legal disaster for those school boards,” Branch said,

Heinert and Branch are incorrect. The bill would not allow teachers to write their own curriculum. The freedoms it gives teachers are in line with the state science standards.

First, the bill explicitly limits authorization to “scientific information presented in courses being taught which are aligned with the content standards established pursuant to § 13-3-48.” (This is the section of South Dakota law that governs the standards revision process.)

Second, this law only authorizes such instruction “in an objective scientific manner.” This doesn’t sound like permission to bring in off-topic or biased information.

Third, this law is in line with the intent of the South Dakota science standards. In the introduction the standards state,

The concepts and content in the science standards represent the most current research in science and science education. All theories are presented in a way that allow teachers to structure an experience around multiple pieces of scientific evidence and competing ideas to allow students to engage in an objective discussion. The theories are presented because they have a large body of scientific evidence that supports them. These 6 standards were developed in such a manner to encourage students to analyze all forms of scientific evidence and draw their own conclusions.

Through the public hearing process related to adoption of the South Dakota Science Standards, it is evident that there is particular sensitivity to two issues: climate change and evolution. The South Dakota Board of Education recognizes that parents are their children’s first teachers, and that parents play a critical role in their children’s formal education. The South Dakota Board of Education also recognizes that not all viewpoints can be covered in the science classroom. Therefore, the board recommends that parents engage their children in discussions regarding these important issues, in order that South Dakota students are able to analyze all forms of evidence and argument and draw their own conclusions.

This legislation allows for the discussion of scientific information on a variety of scientific theories. It does not authorize (much less require) presentation of “all viewpoints” on sensitive issues — which the Board of Education correctly notes can’t necessarily be covered in science class. But proponents of the bill brought up evolutionary theory as an area where relevant scientific information isn’t discussed. This would seem to contradict the statement that “All theories are presented in a way that allow teachers to structure an experience around multiple pieces of scientific evidence and competing ideas to allow students to engage in an objective discussion.”

Fourth, and most importantly, Branch errs by saying that this legislation will allow creationism to be taught. Creationism has been determined to be religion by the Supreme Court (Edwards v. Aguillard), and therefore unconstitutional to teach in public schools. This supersedes any individual state’s legislation. If SB 55 were to become law and a teacher was to teach creationism and be sued, they would receive no protection in court from this legislation.

SB 55 protects teachers who want to teach scientific strengths and weaknesses of topics in the curriculum the freedom to do so without risking their jobs.

Unfortunately, another Argus-Leader article recounting various bills filed by Sen Monroe, ends on an ominous note about SB 55:

The full text is only one sentence, but those 40 words are enough to stir fear among science teachers, administrators, public educators and parents.

The truth would seem to be the opposite. South Dakota science teachers, and therefore the students and families they serve, will likely find this legislation heartening.

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