Archive for December, 2017

Let’s have a “factual, objective conversation”

Monday, December 11th, 2017

I encourage you to comb through the letters to the editor in your local newspaper from the past week. The creationist and climate change denying group Florida Citizens’ Alliance has been encouraging their members to respond to the Associated Press article that they don’t like: New Florida law expected to increase conflict over textbooks.

The letters I’ve found so far are versions of a press release the group issued last month.

The bill in no way promotes a narrow ideology. It opens the conversation to everyone and welcomes factual, objective conversation about important issues.

Here’s one in the Daytona Beach News Journal, and another in the Ocala Star Banner. This is a good way for you to learn who the Alliance supporters are in your area. And perhaps you would like to respond with a letter of your own?

Please let me know if you find any more letters.

News Roundup 12/10/17

Sunday, December 10th, 2017

Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell wrote a piece about the new instructional materials bill we have in Florida as well as the pre-filed bill that’s waiting for the next legislative session: Book-banning — a crusade for Florida’s simplest minds.

And now, a new bill would allow activists to suggest new books students read instead — and require school boards to solicit bids for the book, no matter how nutty it is.

You want kids to read a book about why the earth is flat? Or how to plan a school shooting? It doesn’t matter. Under this new bill, any request would require districts to solicit bids.

[…]

Schools used to be meant for education. Now, they are battlefields for political gamesmanship. Children are merely the pawns.

It started last year when Republican legislators, with help from some Democrats, wanted to embolden the book-banning set.

Responding to the anti-evolution crowd, they passed a law making it easier for citizens — even those who don’t even have children in public schools — to challenge books they find offensive.

[…]

And once again, even though [Naples Republican Byron] Donalds said his bill was designed to empower taxpayers who fund schools, his bill wouldn’t allow the same book-meddling at taxpayer-funded voucher schools.

His resume, by the way, lists him as “a founding board member” of a charter school in Naples.

WFSU did a radio piece on the new instructional materials law. The story starts at 19:55.

A new Florida law allows any state resident to challenge what’s being taught in public schools. A handful of complaints have been filed in school districts statewide since the law took effect in July. Cathy Carter with member station WUSF in Tampa spoke with Renalia (ren-NAIL-ee-uh) DuBose (duh-BOZE), a professor at W-M-U Cooley Law School in Tampa about what the new Florida textbook challenge law is all about.

Florida Citizens for Science member and Gainesville resident Jiri Hulcr had an opinion piece published in the Gainesville Sun about her experience speaking in front of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission. She was there to oppose the proposal to allow public money to fund religious organizations (such as voucher schools that teach creationism instead of evolution). Don’t use taxpayer money to fund religious organizations.

The meeting was eye-opening. What I witnessed was not prudent and unbiased deliberation, but a show scripted for public consumption. Several commissioners did not even pretend to represent the people, and instead were justifying a clear agenda. Commissioner John Stemberger, for example, was beaming with excitement as he proceeded to lecture about the benefits of connecting, not separating, church and state.

“Faith is a public good … Our job [as the commission] is not to be successful, it is to be faithful,” Stemberger said.

And here’s a news story in the Orlando Sentinel about private schools that take state money: Florida school voucher reforms proposed.

Two people from the audience, both in favor of the scholarship programs, were allowed to speak before Rep. Chris Latvala, chairman of the PreK-12 Innovation Subcommittee, said the meeting was over.

Catherine Baer, of the Tea Party Network and part of a coalition of education advocacy organizations called Common Ground, said she had hoped to speak.

“I don’t want my tax dollars being used to teach religion,” she said after the meeting. “That’s not our government’s job.”

Nearly 80 percent of students on the scholarships attend religious schools, with some teaching creationism instead of evolution.

A guest op-ed in the Northwest Florida Daily News shows a shocking ignorance of basic science. The writer obviously never learned a thing about science in his school days: Science does not represent truth.

The theory of evolution that is accepted by science as fact is an untruth and cannot be proven unless you make huge jumps in conclusions based on a guess, pure fiction based on acceptable fiction.

If you say DNA never dies but can be mutated by circumstances in the environment or manipulated by outside aspects, and you called that evolution, you might be right. But to jump to the conclusion that a whale grew legs and became a dinosaur, or a monkey is mankind’s relative, is more than a wild guess. It is not based on anything close to real truth. Truth does not come from educated idiots and there are many.

And last but not least there is this story about voucher schools, featuring some information from Florida: Voucher Schools Championed By Betsy DeVos Can Teach Whatever They Want. Turns Out They Teach Lies.

When Balzak attended a secular college in 2009, it was a shock to the system, she said. In her first environmental science class, she learned about climate change ― a concept she had been taught was a hoax.

“When I took my first real science class, a million light bulbs went off,” said Balzak, who had only been taught creationism in school. “Everything finally made sense.”

The experience made Balzak feel robbed of a fact-based education.

Indeed, Balzak’s former school, Coral Springs Christian Academy [Florida], includes a statement of faith in its parent-student handbook, which is posted on its website: “We believe God created the entire universe out of nothing.”

Nassau County textbook challenge: “Bacteria to man evolution is not supported by science”

Saturday, December 9th, 2017

Nassau County is the first school district I’m aware of that has been faced with a citizen’s challenge to topics in the schools’ science instructional materials. I told you about this back in early November (Nassau County complaint: “stop promoting this scientifically inadequate theory of evolution as fact to our students”). The disgruntled citizen is 71-year-old Jay Shutt who says he retired after 40 years of teaching. His complaint to the school district earned him an official hearing in front of an appointed hearing officer Nov. 1. I obtained the materials from that hearing (Download here: Evolution Materials Nassau County). It’s a lengthy PDF that contains Shutt’s original complaint, the script he read from during the hearing, and the hearing officer’s summary of evidence.

Here’s his opening:

It is my goal to demonstrate to the Board that the material concerning evolution presented in the 3 textbooks I reviewed are not entirely accurate, objective, balanced, and noninflammatory, nor are they suited to the needs of the students.

His script is a good old fashioned romp through one quote mine after another straight out of the standard creationist playbook. It starts with attacks on the veracity of evolutionary theory, then evidence for a young earth, and by the end of the 15 page lecture he’s preaching about the merits of the Bible as 100% accurate in all things. Here’s his finale:

However, my hope and prayer is the Nassau Board of Education will not only mandate macro-evolution and an old earth not be taught as facts, but will allow Bibles to once again be distributed to our students. And further the Board would use its influence with the state of Florida to bring back legalized corporate prayer and Bible reading to our schools.

That’s really reaching and it’s not what the school board will consider at its Dec. 14 meeting. Instead, they’ll consider whether to put disclaimer stickers in all of the science textbooks that feature evolution. Here’s Shutt’s suggested disclaimer sticker:

This book contains material that leads the reader to believe that “bacteria to man” evolution and an old earth of 4.5 billion years are proven scientific facts. Creation scientists would argue that there are dozens and dozens of scientific observations that indicated the earth is young, only several thousand years old.

Additionally, creation scientists would argue that bacteria to man evolution is impossible because (1) living things only come from living things, not from matter and energy. (2) living cells need information to live and function. That information must come from an intelligent source. It cannot come from matter and energy, and (3) life is too complex to be explained by natural selection and chance beneficial mutations. The human genome has 3 billion base pairs, and the human brain operates faster than 30 trillion calculations per second, exponentially faster than any computer.

The recommendation the school district staff is making to the board is to “Continue using the challenged textbooks without placing a disclaimer in them.” You can see that document here: Cover Sheet Agenda Statement for Textbook Challenge Nassau. However, I’m a bit worried that during the hearing, the only counterargument presented by the school district was that replacing the textbooks would be expensive. Of course, I don’t expect anyone to answer all of Shutt’s laundry list of ignorant claims, but shouldn’t someone have mentioned that the textbooks are aligned with the state science standards and therefore are necessary for students to pass the state mandated biology end of course exam?

So, yes, as I predicted long ago when the new instructional materials law was considered by our oh-so-wise lawmakers with little to no debate that this would happen. I knew school boards would be sucked into exactly this time wasting black hole of antiscience garbage. Lawmakers brushed off my concerns as silly.

It turns out that I was right. Imagine that. And we know that complaints about evolution or climate change also popped up in Palm Beach County and Brevard County.

Nassau County had been caught flatfooted by Shutt’s complaint. They hadn’t yet considered how to incorporate the new instructional materials law into their operations. But Shutt’s complaint has forced them to do their homework and they now have a proposed new Board Rule to address future complaints. They’ll consider it for approval at the Dec. 14 board meeting. You can see the proposed Rule here: 20171214-Poole-School Board Rule 8.17. Hopefully, this part of the Rule will dissuade future nonsense complaints:

2. Basis for Contesting Instructional Materials.
A parent of a student in the Nassau County School District, or a resident of Nassau County, who objects to instructional materials that are being used by the Nassau County School District must proffer evidence to the Nassau County School Board that:
a. The instructional materials were selected for use in a course or otherwise made available to students in the Nassau County School District but were not subject to public notice, review, comment, and hearing.

[…]

3. Procedure for Contesting Instructional Materials.
a. The parent or resident must file a petition, on a form provided by the Nassau County School Board and made available on the Nassau County School District’s website, within 30 calendar days after the adoption of the instructional materials by the Nassau County School Board.

If I’m reading the proposed Rule correctly, future citizen complaints must first prove that a textbook’s adoption process lacked proper citizen input and that the complaint must be filed within a month of the adoption. That should close the door on complaints like Shutt’s. Other school districts need to adopt rules similar to this one if they haven’t already. There are ways determined creationists can still use this new instructional materials law to cry foul in an attempt to get a hearing, but, hopefully, the most nonsensical will be filtered out.

My hope is that Nassau County will agree with the recommendation to dismiss Shutt’s disclaimer sticker request and this will be the last of it. But as I showed over and over again in my book, Going Ape, issues like this one tend to bring out the closet creationists on school boards. We’ll see on Dec. 14.

Antiscience Bills Update 12/8/17

Friday, December 8th, 2017

Here’s a quick update on the bills we’re watching in the Florida legislature. The legislative session doesn’t actually kick off until Jan. 8 but bills can be pre-filed in preparation for the session and those bills can be assigned to committees and possibly even heard and voted on during committee meetings before the session. With that in mind, here’s what’s happening:

House Bill 827: Instructional Materials

Link to bill here.

“A controversial new state law that makes it easier for Florida residents to challenge books used in public schools could get overhauled next year so those who dislike certain texts could also suggest replacements they find more appropriate.” (Orlando Sentinel, 12/1/17)

Today (Dec. 8) the bill was referred to three committees: PreK-12 Quality Subcommittee, PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, and Education Committee. It looks like the PreK-12 Quality Subcommittee will be the first to consider the bill but it has not been scheduled for a meeting yet. It should be noted that the person who filed this bill, Rep. Byron Donalds, is on this committee.

At this time, this bill has no counterpart in the Senate.

Senate Bill 966: Educational Standards for K-12 Public Schools

Link to bill here.

Florida’s Senate Bill 966, prefiled on November 17, 2017, would, if enacted, require “[c]ontroversial theories and concepts … [to] be taught in a factual, objective, and balanced manner,” while allowing local school districts to use either the state science standards or alternatives “equivalent to or more rigorous than” them. Although there is no indication in the bill about which “theories and concepts” are deemed to be “controversial,” much less any guidance about adjudicating disputes about which are and which are not, it is suggestive that the bill’s sole sponsor, Dennis Baxley (R-District 12), has a history of antievolution advocacy. (NCSE, 11/20/17)

On Dec. 4, the bill was referred to three committees: Education, Appropriations, and Rules. It should be noted that the bill sponsor, Sen. Dennis Baxley, is on the Appropriation committee.

House Bill 825: Educational Standards For K-12 Public Schools

Link to bill here. This is the companion bill to SB 966.

Florida’s House Bill 825, prefiled on November 28, 2017, would, if enacted, require “[c]ontroversial theories and concepts … [to] be taught in a factual, objective, and balanced manner,” while allowing local school districts to use either the state science standards or alternatives “equivalent to or more rigorous than” them. (NCSE, 11/29/17)

Today (Dec. 8) the bill was referred to three committees: PreK-12 Quality Subcommittee, PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, and Education Committee. It looks like the PreK-12 Quality Subcommittee will be the first to consider the bill but it has not been scheduled for a meeting yet.

You need to be active now!

As you can see, these bills are live and on the move. The time to contact your local legislators is now, not later. Try to meet with them in person, especially if they’re serving on any of the committees these bills will be in front of. We can’t stop these bills without YOU!

News Roundup 12/3/17

Sunday, December 3rd, 2017

Here’s a quick roundup of events and news from the past few days …

Textbooks

A couple of newspaper columnists seized on the news article produced by the Associated Press recently (I wrote about it in my previous post Teaching that global warming is caused by human activity is “blatant indoctrination”).

Bill Maxwell, from the Tampa Bay Times said Welcome to Florida, the benighted state.

One of Florida’s three nicknames is the Sunshine State. We should add at least one more: the Benighted State.

You see, our anti-intellectual lawmakers in Tallahassee recently passed a law that institutionalizes academic censorship in our public schools. These politicians are urged on by the ultra-conservative group the Florida Citizens Alliance, anti-science zealots.

Daniel Ruth, also from the Tampa Bay Times said Classrooms need some controversy for learning.

And a group called Florida Citizens’ Alliance argues that teaching stuff like evolution and climate change shouldn’t be allowed to muddle the minds of our precious youth without equally including creationism, as well as the belief by some that global warming is a hoax.

Indeed, one Nassau County resident scholar suggested schools should teach that life was created on Earth by space aliens. What would be the source material for this curriculum? Plan 9 From Outer Space?

The Daytona Beach News Journal published an editorial Textbook law could cause headaches.

The problem arises when people exploit that expanded freedom for purely ideological reasons. The Florida Citizens’ Alliance is a conservative group that pushed for the new law, arguing that many districts ignored challenges or addressed them with committees that were stacked in the districts’ favor. The alliance particularly has problems with the way evolution and climate change are taught in science classes; it wants students to hear counterarguments the organization approves of.

And the Orlando Sentinel noted the new bill pre-filed for the next legislative session that targets textbooks yet again (I posted about it at: Another “controversial theories” bill filed and other bad news) in the news story: Florida could expand challenges to school textbooks.

A controversial new state law that makes it easier for Florida residents to challenge books used in public schools could get overhauled next year so those who dislike certain texts could also suggest replacements they find more appropriate.

The proposed changes are in a bill (HB 827) filed by Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, a co-sponsor of the initial bill (HB 989) signed into law in June.

And, of course, our friends at the National Center for Science Education are spreading the word: A new instructional materials bill in Florida.

Florida’s House Bill 827, prefiled on November 28, 2017, would, if enacted, revise the procedures for adopting instructional materials to permit members of the public to recommend instructional materials for consideration by the state or their district school board, which would then be required to get in touch with the publisher of those materials and allow it to submit a bid for evaluation.

Meanwhile, the folks at the Florida Citizens’ Alliance aren’t happy with the negative press they’re getting. They went so far as to issue a press release:

The bill in no way promotes a narrow ideology. It opens the conversation to everyone and welcomes factual, objective conversation about important issues.

Controversial Theories Bill

Surprisingly, there has been no news at all about this bill lately. I’m genuinely shocked that Sen. Baxley hasn’t been put on the spot yet about the bill (see my previous post “Controversial theories” science education bill filed in Florida senate). Perhaps because there are so many other high profile news stories there just hasn’t been time for reporters to tackle this one yet. And it might just be on the back burner until the legislative session starts. But the fireworks will start eventually.

Constitution Revision Commission

Some Florida Citizens for Science members and friends traveled to Tallahassee Nov 29 to testify against the proposed change to our state constitution that would “remove the prohibition against using public revenues in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or any sectarian institution.” (I wrote about why we’re concerned the proposal at Education a target for Constitution Revision Commission.) Jiri Hulcr and Joseph Richardson sent this report of their experience, reprinted with permission:

Joseph Richardson and I have just come back from a meeting of the Constitution Revision Commission in Tallahassee. The main topic of today’s agenda was whether to place on a public voting ballot the proposal to delete the No Aid clause of the Florida Constitution that bans the State from supporting religious organizations with tax-revenue money.

It was one of the most troubling experiences in my recent memory. I believe that we have witnessed the right-wing political machine at work. It was obvious that the decisions of the individual committee members have been made long before the meeting. Many of the commissioners are politically appointed by governor Scott, others are drawn from other branches of the current government, and as a result this critically important body is much more a reflection of the current conservative representatives than of the state’s population. There were only four members of the public that spoke: three against the proposal, one (a representative of a catholic bishop conference) in support. The proposal passed 7 to 1 [the website says the vote was 5-1], quickly, with little discussion among the committee members. The Florida voters will soon be asked to decide whether to get rid of one of the few remaining pieces in the state legislature that prevent religious organizations pushing religious agenda, particularly education, using your taxes.

The most troubling aspect was the behavior of some of the committee members. There was not even a pretext of unbiased and prudent deliberation. Commissioner Stemberger in particular was wallowing in excitement as he proceeded to lecture about the benefits of connecting, not separating, church and state. […] Here are a few transcribed gems: “By getting rid of [the No Aid clause] we are getting more human flourishing, better education… Faith is a public good. Faith provides amazing richness and services. […] It is smart for the government to decentralize its services… The purpose of the First Amendment was NOT to protect non-religious people from religion…. Our job [as the Committee] is not to be successful, it is to be faithful.”

Is this legal? Is this the appropriate process? Can the committee’s explicit, blatant bias be challenged on this ground?

If you’re interested in watching the comments, the video is available online. Jiri starts at about 1:55:00 and Joseph immediately follows him.

Here’s a news article about the vote: Panel wants end of Florida constitution ban on state cash for religion

The Constitution Revision Commission meets every 20 years and has the power to place proposed constitutional amendments on the November 2018 ballot. Martinez’s proposal to eliminate the no-aid provision is one of dozens of proposals being considered by the commission.

Adkins warned commission members that adding a “controversial” provision like the no-aid proposal could jeopardize the commission’s entire slate of measures. She noted a similar no-aid constitutional amendment failed in 2012 with only 44.5 percent support from voters.

[…]

Martinez’s proposal next heads to the commission’s Education Committee. If it moves forward to the full 37-member commission, it will need at least 22 votes to go before voters in November 2018.

Miscellaneous

We here at Florida Citizens for Science are busy keeping track of these issues and others. We’re submitting public records requests to Palm Beach County, Nassau County and Brevard County to find out all that we can about complaints about evolution in textbooks filed in those counties. We’ll let you know what we discover.