State legislation could accidentally mess up science education
As state legislatures begin their annual consideration of bills, there is invariably a set of bills introduced that targets science education, typically focusing on evolution and climate change. This year is no exception—witness an Indiana bill that calls for “the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science.” In the vast majority of these instances, someone points out that these efforts are blatantly unconstitutional, and the bills go nowhere, as has already happened in North Dakota.
But this year, three states have seen measures introduced that could interfere with science education, but only accidentally. In a bid to keep “controversial issues” out of the classroom, the bills would call for teachers not to advocate on any topics that have appeared in the platform of a state political party. In the US, that would include evolution and climate change.
As is typical when similar measures appear in multiple states, the idea comes from an outside source. In this case, the source calls itself “Stop K-12 Indoctrination,” an outgrowth of the David Horowitz Freedom Center. While the Center has been labelled anti-Muslim, its issues seem more generally anti-left-wing, targeting programs that promote gender and racial tolerance.
Among the group’s programs is a K-12 code of ethics for teachers, which is what serves as the model for legislation that’s appeared in South Dakota, Virginia, and Arizona. Claimed to be a way of avoiding “indoctrination” of students by teachers, the code of ethics prohibits the use of class time to (among other things) “advocate in a partisan manner for any side of a controversial issue, defined as an issue that is a point in electoral party platforms at the national, state, or local level.”
Which is problematic, given that a large number of state party platforms specifically mention evolution and climate change. Oklahoma’s Republicans currently advocate that “where evolution is taught, intelligent design and competing origin theories must be taught as well.”
The Texas Republican platform once specifically targeted evolution and climate change, calling for “equal treatment of all sides of scientific theories, including evolution, Intelligent Design, global warming, political philosophies, and others.” The current version dropped evolution but now states, “’Climate change’ is a political agenda promoted to control every aspect of our lives. We support the defunding of ‘climate justice’ initiatives, the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency, and repeal of the Endangered Species Act.” (The code of “ethics” would therefore presumably also interfere with education covering ecology and the US government.)
Is that ethical?
While these party platforms already call for legislation that interferes with science education, the code of “ethics” would also cause problems in states that are trying to do the right thing. For example, California’s Democrats have a platform that calls for “science books that fully reflect the strong scientific consensus on issues of science, such as climate change, evolution, and the Big Bang theory.” In Massachusetts, the party’s platform calls for protecting the state from the impacts of climate change.
While those platforms promote actions that are consistent with scientific evidence, the legislation calls for the state school board to block teachers from spending any school time to advocate for any position on these issues—which presumably would include describing which positions are fact-based.
In other areas where science has weighed in, there’s the danger that this will become self-reinforcing. Texas’ platform, for example, wants all sex-education classes banned but wants abstinence promotion to be the only thing taught until then. That would be enough to prevent teachers from discussing the evidence that abstinence-only education doesn’t work, leaving Texans uninformed about the impact of possible legislation.
While there’s no indication that any of these efforts will result in laws, if past history is any indication, bills based on model legislation like this have a tendency to appear in multiple states and return year after year if defeated.