A new law passed by our state legislature and signed by our governor in 2017 now allows any citizen, not just a parent, to protest to local school boards about instructional materials and those protests could then force the school board to appoint a hearing officer to collect evidence about the complaints. This has led to a few challenges already, some of them blatantly targeting evolution and other science topics.
Why this law threatens science education:
The law originated with a group in Collier County called Florida Citizens’ Alliance. They spent several years fighting against what they believe to be bias in textbooks used in their local schools. They eventually expanded their scope to the entire state and met with some success in the state legislature in 2017. For a full write-up of the lengthy history of this fight, which isn’t over yet, see the blog post Creationist-enabling bill passes; what can you do now? Here was Florida Citizens for Science’s official statement after the legislature passed the bill but before the governor signed it:
We believe that should this bill become law with the governor’s signature, people who crusade against basic, established science concepts such as evolution and climate change will have the green light to bog down the textbook selection process on the local level and bully school boards into compromises that will negatively impact science education.
The current textbook selection and review process allows parents to have a voice. But this bill would now allow any citizen, not just parents, to formally complain about what’s in instructional materials, allowing anyone with an ideological agenda to protest on behalf of their pet cause. The bill also requires school boards to appoint a hearing officer to consider such complaints, adding onerous extra steps to the process and potential additional expense.
Florida Citizens for Science launched opposition to the Alliance’s efforts in December 2015 when research revealed that among the Alliance’s many complaints about textbooks were complaints about the teaching of evolution.
The Alliance typically concentrated on history textbooks, but some of those books have sections explaining human evolution. In this December 22 post, they say that there is a problem with how evolution is presented:
“Florida History: People and Nations” Collier County 6th grade History: These two pages teach the children that we descended from apes. This is stated as a fact not a theory. Nowhere in the material is a balanced discussion of the biblical explanation.
In a December 15 post they publish a full report on Modern World History, 9th Grade Teacher Edition Year: 2013. Here is one of their critiques:
Study of Darwin’s theory of evolution
Very biased section and Darwin’s conclusions presented as fact and the biblical theory as ludicrous
– Poses the question “how can the earths tremendous variety of plants and animals be explained?” states as fact millions of species exist and fossil records document changes over time. Darwin proved species compete for food and only fittest survive and pass off traits to their offspring.
-while the biblical explanation claims all species created by God on the same day
This is a totally superficial and disingenuous comparison. No reference of fact that both are theories or offer students references like the well documented series called “ The Truth Project” by Focus on the Family.
The Alliance went on the record with many, many other complaints about evolution and climate change. For a full list of those complaints, be sure to read the history write-up linked above.
Additionally, a news article about the bill, Florida Bills Would Let Citizens Remove Textbooks That Mention Climate Change and Evolution, featured this alarming quote:
Keith Flaugh, co-director of the Florida Citizens’ Alliance, a libertarian advocacy group, argued the bills are about transparency and giving communities greater say in school materials, which he said are currently being chosen by “politicized” school districts and “establishment” textbook companies.
“The science here is not proven on either side,” Flaugh said. “There are lots of scientists on both sides of that equation: Creationism versus the theory of evolution. They’re both theories. And all we’re asking for is both sides of the discussion in a balanced way be put in front of the students.”
When the bill passed its final vote in the Senate, another story, Florida lawmakers pass bill making it easier to challenge textbooks, reaffirmed Flaugh’s stance:
Similar measures have been considered by dozens of state legislatures in recent years, typically backed by conservative organizations and politicians, and viewed by critics as targeting evolution, climate change and sexually explicit material.
“We’re not trying to ban books,” said Keith Flaugh, founder of the Florida Citizens’ Alliance, which pushed for that state’s bill.
He said his group is seeking balance in school instruction, including teaching both evolution and creationism and the various arguments about climate change.
The Alliance teamed up with the climate change denying activists at the Heartland Institute and conservative textbook watchdogs Truth in Textbooks. To read more about their partnership, see the post: The Heartland Institute, Truth in Textbooks, and Time magazine are interested in Florida.
Fallout from this new law:
The first school district to face a challenge based on this new law was Nassau County. A citizen complained about evolution’s prominent place in the textbooks and asked that a disclaimer sticker be placed in all of the textbooks. The citizen got a hearing with an appointed hearing officer and then the findings were presented to the school board. The school board voted down the proposal to use the disclaimer stickers but likely only because of the high potential for an unwinnable court challenge. The superintendent and a legal adviser both stated during the meeting that they agreed with the complainant but felt that the legal hurdle was too high. Read these blog posts for the full story:
- Nassau County complaint: “stop promoting this scientifically inadequate theory of evolution as fact to our students”
- Nassau County textbook challenge: “Bacteria to man evolution is not supported by science”
- Meanwhile, in Nassau County: “I thought evolution was a bunch of baloney”
- Following up on Nassau County shenanigans
What you can do:
There is skepticism in the news media that this new law will have much of an impact, citing how few challenges have been filed so far. First of all, even if only one school district allows challenges to evolution and climate change in the classroom, that’s one too many. Despite the fact that Nassau County turned down the request for disclaimer stickers in science textbooks, the creationist sentiments expressed during the school board meeting raise concerns over how many other anti-evolution school boards are out there that might be bolder than Nassau County. Furthermore, we’ve heard little from the Alliance, the force behind this new law. It’s unlikely that they would work so hard for this law to let it go unused. As of this writing, the statewide review and selection of new science textbooks by the Florida Department of Education is ongoing. Once local school districts start choosing instructional materials from the state list, we could suddenly see major fireworks. Marion County decided to forgo the state process altogether and review and adopt their own textbooks, which will definitely attract the attention of the Alliance and their allies.
- The real fireworks will happen over instructional materials at the school district level. Contact your local school district. Let them know you are willing to help them review and select science instructional materials when the time comes. Let them know you’ll be willing to serve as the hearing officer if any complaints come forward. Make sure they know who you are and that you are there to help, not cause problems.
- Become familiar with your school district. When are the school board meetings? Can you access the school board meeting agenda online or somewhere else before meetings? Can you access the meeting minutes after the meetings? Are the meetings recorded? Are they broadcast live? Who are the school board members? Have any of them ever expressed anti-science sentiments or pro-science comments?
- Become familiar with your local residents. Are there any who frequently complain to the school board who might now use the new instructional materials law to amplify their complaints? Are there any organized groups who have or possibly will be loud? (Check this list on the Florida Citizens’ Alliance website and this list, too. Are any of those groups or individuals in your area?)