Survival of the Fittest

It may be years before Louisiana taxpayers can assess the full effect of the Science Education Act – legislation that allows school boards to approve supplemental materials to teach science. Is it a repackaged attempt by religious conservatives to attack biological evolution and teach biblical creationism in public schools as its critics predict? Or, is it simply an attempt to improve science education as its proponents contend?

If taken at face value, the act is innocuous. In fact, it includes language stating that it isn’t aimed at promoting religious doctrine. Nonetheless, the act creates suspicion because it targets specific fields of study including biological evolution and the origins of life. Both are assaulted by religious-minded groups who see Darwinism – the well-established theory that life forms developed gradually several million years ago – as a threat to the Bible’s assertion that God created the earth and its life forms.
If the critics are right and the act is a stealthy attempt to present God as the creator into the classroom, the result would likely put Louisiana back in federal court – where it was in 1987, defending actions that have been ruled unconstitutional based on the principle of separation of church and state.

If the supplemental materials aren’t of a religious nature, the brouhaha will be forgotten. The larger question is: How will school boards and teachers define “religious?”

Unlike most educational policy, these materials would originate at the local level, not at the department of education – the civil service arm of the elected Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. The act allows state officials to prohibit materials but it doesn’t say that local school boards must seek state approval prior to using the materials in the classroom. This unusual bottom up decision-making allows local school authorities to bypass state policy makers, at least initially.

“Frankly, I think it was written that way on purpose,” says Scott Norton, assistant state superintendent for school and student performance. “It’s not a subtle difference.”

Norton says that the “worst case scenario” would be that “inappropriate materials” could be used for a long time before they come to the attention of state officials.
Nancy Beben, who tracks legislation for the department of education, says that Board of Elementary and Secondary Education members weren’t aware of the bill until it had started moving through the legislative process. But when it came to their attention, the board recommended an amendment mandating BESE approval of the materials before they’re used in the classroom. Legislators ignored the recommendation.

Wording that allows BESE to bar materials was included at some point but the language fell short of giving primary authority to BESE. The exact reason for this peculiar aspect of the legislation is unknown. But it’s worth noting that in 1981, after former Gov. Dave Treen signed into law the Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act – a law that required schools to give equal time to the instruction of creationism and evolution – former Attorney General William Guste sued state education officials asking courts to force the officials to implement the creationism law. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional.

Considering history, it’s surprising that only three members of the Legislature, all in the House of Representatives, voted against a bill that many believe could create a similar situation.

Rep. Karen Carter, D-New Orleans, who voted no, says she found the entire process “odd.” There was no debate on the house floor for a bill that she considered ripe with potential danger. She thinks that the language giving BESE some measure of control – albeit belated – probably swayed many to give in to it, but she voted against it because the proponents had histories of promoting religious agendas. The wording also led her to believe that the bill’s true intent was to make a second run at inserting religion into public schools.

“What I read, I didn’t like,” Carter says. “I voted my conscience and my principles. The old debate about creationism and intelligent design isn’t healthy.”

What state education officials will consider “inappropriate material” is yet to be determined, though Norton says BESE will likely discuss and adopt an advisory measure for school boards at its September meeting. Instructional materials that present religious doctrines are “inappropriate,” Norton says. He declined to be definitive about materials presenting the concept of “intelligent design,” a term used by anti-Darwin forces to describe their current explanation for the origins of life.
Advocates of intelligent design define it as the idea that there are aspects of living organisms that are best explained by “designing intelligence” rather than the randomness of Darwinism. In other words, ID, as it’s often called, holds that life developed as part of a planned process, not one that occurred by chance. The difference between ID and biblical creationism is that creationism derives from the Bible’s Book of Genesis. ID theory, its advocates say, is based on an “inference” taken from biological data, not on religious teachings. 

Even if ID proponents use biological data to draw their conclusions, critics say that any suggestion that some kind of intelligence designed life forms is a disguised version of the “God created the heaven and the earth” story and shouldn’t be taught in publicly financed schools.

Norton says he couldn’t speculate about whether “intelligent design” would be included in the state department’s guidelines of “inappropriate” materials because the definition of ID is debatable.

Here lies the potential problem.

Although the bill that became state law with Gov. Jindal’s signature doesn’t say anything about teaching ID, the most recent attempts to question the validity of evolution in public classrooms have involved ID. In 2005, a federal judge ruled that ID is a form of creationism and therefore inserting it in public education violates the First Amendment the U.S. Constitution. The case was initiated by parents of Dover, Penn. school children.

In Dover, science teachers were required to read a statement to ninth grade biology students that said evolution “is not a fact.” “Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence.” The statement also said, “Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view.” The students were encouraged to read Of Pandas and People, a book that outlines the ID argument.

District science teachers refused to read the statement. Officials who supported the requirement were voted out of office, but the district was saddled with legal fees of over $1 million.

How Louisiana’s science teachers will respond to a less demanding law may eventually be the most interesting outcome of the controversy. John West, a research fellow at the Discovery Institute, an organization that promotes ID, praised the act in an online article for protecting “teachers who want to encourage critical thinking about hot-button science issues.”

But Ivan Gill, who holds a doctorate in geology and teaches science education at the University of New Orleans, says science teachers already have too much material to cover. “This state already has a difficult time in achieving educational excellence. We are at the bottom of the heap. Why make the situation worse by taking up time teaching something that’s not science?”

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