I’ll start with the end.
Evolution and climate change will remain unmolested in new science textbooks approved by the Collier County school board Monday night. The close 3-2 vote in favor of the textbooks came after a marathon five-hour textbook hearing and school board deliberation. For once, I was able to see everything firsthand instead of through a video screen or after-the-fact news articles. I had driven four hours across the state so that I could sit in the front row and document most of what happened through a constant flow of live tweets and a few summary Facebook posts. Hopefully, you’ve read my dispatches. The conversation that developed around them was educational.
The trip was worthwhile, but not because I was mere feet from the participants for several hours, seeing them in action. Rather, it was because it was a morale booster to be among the many science education and public school advocates who took the time to show up and be a part of the process. I was buoyed by the conversations I had with them before the hearing, during recess breaks, and after the final vote. They are passionate, thoughtful, and warm people who helped me see that Collier County isn’t actually a seething nest of creationists and climate change deniers. They’re being sorely misrepresented by the Florida Citizens’ Alliance, which is, unfortunately, headquartered on their home turf. When I arrived, I carried with me a deep concern that the creationist weed was going to multiply there. I didn’t need to worry. Collier County residents and parents had it under control.
I won’t go into the blow by blow of all the things each textbook protester said. You’ve probably heard it all before. And their arguments aren’t really important, anyway. I’ll just touch on the unique points and the overall summary.
Citizens Speak Up
First of all, a hearing officer presided over the hearing, but all school board members were also present. Immediately after the hearing, the school board convened a session to deliberate and vote. This is unlike the other counties where hearings were held. The other counties had a hearing, after which the hearing officer wrote a recommendation. At a later date, the school boards then convened and voted. In Collier County, the hearing office ran the hearing but wasn’t required to do anything once it was over.
After a quick orientation promptly at 3:30 by the hearing officer — experienced attorney Mr. Shannon McFee — the proceedings started with public comments. About 15 people had three minutes each to comment on the textbooks and the filed objections. Unlike many other public comment sessions I’ve seen, this one leaned heavily toward the pro-science side with 10 people supporting the books under scrutiny and only five supporting the objections. That was a good start. Once that was all over, the first hour of the hearing had slipped by.
Next, four people were scheduled to make their cases. However, one of the protesters, Melissa Pind, didn’t show up, leaving the other three to carry on.
Keith Flaugh, the managing director of Florida Citizens Alliance who I’ve written about many times here, was the first one out of the gate. But he spent an inordinate amount of time complaining about how the hearing was organized and lecturing the board members and the hearing officer about their roles and responsibilities. At one point the hearing officer ordered the timekeeper to stop the clock so that he could forcefully admonish Flaugh for his conduct. Flaugh complained several times about only being allowed 30 minutes to speak. His presentation was disorganized and Flaugh was obviously flustered throughout. The hearing officer even tried to help Flaugh calm down and focus despite Flaugh’s antagonism.
Flaugh relied heavily on the book Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen C. Meyer, holding it up and frequently quoting from it. The hearing officer asked Flaugh about any problems religious concepts might introduce into the science classroom and Flaugh claimed that religion wasn’t the foundation of his objections. Rather, he said that this was all about science versus science since so many reputable scientists didn’t accept evolution. (This is a blatant lie. Religious resources are all over his written objections filed with the school district and his multiple statements to the news media constantly talk about balancing evolution and creationism.)
The hearing officer also asked Flaugh what book would be a good one to use in science classrooms. Flaugh stated that it’s not his job to find the resources. His task is just to review the resources under consideration. It’s the district’s job to find appropriate resources or find ways to fix the books.
And, of course, Flaugh played the ace up his sleeve: Florida statutes require that textbooks be “accurate, objective, balanced, non-inflammatory.” Evolution-only textbooks violate that statute, he said.
Once his half hour (actually, it was more than a half hour) was up, school district curriculum and science specialists were afforded time to respond. They did the single best thing they could have done: they clearly stated that the textbooks must adhere to the state science standards. And they even took the time to explain the correct scientific definitions of the words theory and fact. It was a beautiful slam dunk.
Flaugh then returned to the podium for a quick rebuttal. He said that the textbooks violate state statute and that statute trumps standards. He also mentioned that there were a lot of problems found in textbooks in Texas and through the citizen review process many of the errors were fixed.
After a recess, board member Erika Donalds wanted to know why the hearing process was set up in the manner it was. Why is the hearing officer not tasked with submitting a recommendation to the school board like what was done in Martin County? The district lawyer responded that’s the way it is in the district policy. (I don’t believe this satisfied Donalds at all.)
The next presenter was Dr. Joseph Doyle. (I was told that Doyle is a “frequent flyer” at school board meetings, taking the opportunity to speak at nearly every one.) He started with a listing of his credentials and degrees, which literally took several minutes. He also mentioned that he served on a few of the textbook selection committees. (I was told that he didn’t give any of the textbooks a low rating while he was on the committees. And yet he turned around afterward to submit a long list of citizen review complaints.)
He started off by stating that the state standards are lousy. He then worked his way through a few of his complaints. For instance, he displayed a textbook page that discusses overpopulation. He claimed that the text could lead to a classroom conversation about abortion, euthanasia and other such topics. Like Flaugh, he brought up textbook errors being fixed in Texas. He went on to say that there are holes in the fossil record, common core is baloney, and the concept of “settled science” is a myth. (Dang! I should have made a bingo game to play during this hearing. I’m sure we could have easily filled up the whole bingo card.)
Once finished, school district personnel proceeded to shred his arguments, especially the more outrageous ones like the overpopulation example. They emphasized that the textbooks are not taught in isolation but are rather taught as a part of a whole curriculum.
Doyle’s rebuttal was to emphasize that the state standards are lousy. He went to say something about textbooks leading students into a new world order and that a globalist view is bad. (I briefly felt like I was at a Trump rally.)
Where Are the Old White Men?
Finally, meteorologist H. Michael Mogil got his time in the spotlight. He was clearly the best presenter of the three with a relaxed, personable delivery. He pointed out that the textbook review committees were only required to complete very simple ranking forms but he was required to fill out a much more detailed form for his citizen review objections. Like Doyle, Mogil gave several examples of errors and omissions he claimed where in the textbooks. But what stood out the most was his claim that there are too many minorities represented in the books’ pictures and not enough older white men. (I took a picture of his presentation slide so you could see that I’m not making this up.)
The district personnel did another fine job of dismantling the objections, actually showing on the room’s display screens some of the textbook pages and pointing out where information Mogil claimed was missing was actually located. They also said they had contacted the publisher and then read to the hearing officer and board members some of the publisher’s responses. And it should be noted that some errors that Mogil found appeared to be legitimate and the publisher was looking into them. But the district personnel found that the majority of Mogil’s complaints were editorial in nature and based on opinion rather than fact.
Intelligent Design is Not Religion
Finally, after hours of testimony, the hearing was over. The hearing officer declared his job done and he left. Now the hearing transitioned into a school board meeting. Donalds quickly made a motion to adopt the unopposed textbooks and discuss and vote on the opposed textbooks one at a time. Kelly Lichter seconded the motion. But the full board voted down the motion 3-2. Then a motion was made to discuss and vote to approve all of the textbooks at once. This then opened up board member deliberations.
Stephanie Lucarelli started it off by stating: “We will never find one book that everyone will agree on.” She had taken several pages of notes throughout the proceeding and pointed out that the three protesters had made some conflicting statements, which further supported her contention that a single perfect textbook would be impossible to find. She stated that creationism doesn’t belong in the science classroom and she briefly talked about the proper use of the word “theory” in science. (I was later told that she was a former science teacher.) She also took careful note of how many people had spoken during public comments and how many emails and conversations she’s had on this topic. She said that the majority support the proposed science textbooks.
Lichter was next. She claimed that the textbooks have a clear political slant to them, especially concerning climate change. The books have a political agenda that is being forced down the students’ throats.
Donalds complained about the hearing process, saying that the board never voted on that process and didn’t even vote to have the current meeting. She wants the “other side” of evolution taught. And she believes intelligent design is perfectly okay to teach in the science classroom. Her reasoning was that intelligent design is not a religion but rather instruction ABOUT a religion. (I don’t fully understand her point. I will need to watch the recording of the meeting again to see if I can figure it out.) She also mentioned that state standards should be considered the floor, not the ceiling. (This is a statement straight out of the playbook promoting a bill about education standards we saw in the last Florida legislative session.)
Erick Carter said that the courts have made it clear that creationism and intelligent design are unconstitutional. He has no desire to drag the school district into that mess. Chairman Roy Terry said that evolution is not in opposition to the Bible. He quoted from the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church: “We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world.”
Before the vote was finally called for, Superintendent Dr. Kamela Patton explained that two textbooks had been pulled from consideration: an environmental science book and a meteorology book. She said that there are currently no courses offered in the district for those subjects, and even if there were, the copyright on the proposed environmental science book was already several years old.
And the vote was finally cast: three for textbook approval and two against. Up next? It’s guaranteed that Flaugh and his Alliance will file a lawsuit. To be continued …