Rotten apples

Don’t worry if that juicy apple has a rotten spot, folks. Just quickly swallow the mush and move on. There is still plenty of crisp, cool fruit to enjoy once you get past it. That’s the thrust of an argument posted recently at the redefinED blog: Why science advocates should embrace vouchers, school choice. (hat tip to Bridge to Tomorrow.)

The author of that post, Ron Matus, was a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and did an excellent job of covering education issues, including the exhausting 2008 controversy over the teaching of evolution in Florida’s schools. I had always considered him a member of the reality-based community who did his best to advocate for sound science education even while wearing the fair-and-balanced-reporter hat. He’s no longer at the Times, though. He recently scrubbed away the newsprint ink embedded in his fingertips and slipped into a new career as Assistant Director for Policy & Public Affairs at Step Up for Students, the organization that administers Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship program. Now his job is to promote his employer’s causes, which are vouchers and school choice.

In that blog post, Matus tried to do some damage control. A recent New York Times article took voucher programs to task for funneling public tax dollars to blatantly religious education. Instead of evolution in biology class, students heard about Adam, Eve and Noah. Matus professes his acceptance of evolution as fact, but then he says that creationism isn’t something to froth at the mouth about if all the other aspects of private school education are exceptional. “Even if we disagree about creationism, we shouldn’t be so blinded that we forget all the other lessons these children receive in all the other classes they take, in all the years they attend school.”

How about we take a minute to swim around in the deep end of ridiculousness? Let’s pair a phenomenal reading program with a “science” book that says the earth is flat. The science lab has an expensive telescope that would be the envy of any college level astronomy program and it’s being used to show students that the sun goes around the earth. The history program won a shelf full of awards for its in-depth Civil War section, but then there’s that page later in the textbook that says the moon landings were fake. Oh, and President Obama wasn’t born in the United States.

Wave all that stuff away as my overreaction. I’m going overboard. No one actually teaches that stuff in school. Be serious, Brandon.

From the New York Times article: “A commonly used sixth-grade science text retells the creation story contained in Genesis, omitting any other explanation. An economics book used in some high schools holds that the Antichrist — a world ruler predicted in the New Testament — will one day control what is bought and sold.”

How do we know, really know, that my made up, ridiculous examples aren’t actually being taught in a private school where some students are attending with voucher funds? We don’t. And that’s what is so damn scary.

I’m sorry, Matus, but if any subject being taught in a private school supplants reality with ideology, then the whole barrel of apples is suspect. Sure, parents can choose a private school’s amazing language arts program, but public tax dollars most certainly should not support the garbage being fed to students a few doors down the hall.

The issue of vouchers paying for antievolution instruction has come up before here in Florida. I’m writing a book about the history of antievolution efforts in Florida. (I’m actually done with the bulk of the writing, more than 82,000 words now, and I’m going through the tedious editing, fact checking and citation organizing now. I hope to be all done and ready to shop for a publisher by the end of this month!) I’ll leave you with a relevant excerpt from chapter 8.

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Education in general has been a major issue in Florida for decades, highlighted in 1998 by the strengthening of the education clause in the state’s constitution, which starts with: “The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida.” The following year Gov. Jeb Bush pushed the concept of offering school vouchers through the Opportunity Scholarship Program. The original version of the program allowed students who attended consistently failing public schools to either transfer to a higher performing public school or use state funds to attend a participating private school.

A separate voucher program, called The McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program, was created a couple of years later. In this program, the voucher was based on students’ special needs instead of any school’s performance. Eligible students could transfer between public schools or choose to attend a private school. A third voucher program, called the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, was also implemented in the early 2000s to “encourage private, voluntary contributions from corporate donors to non-profit scholarship funding organizations (SFOs) that award scholarships to children from low-income families.”

Public schools were under increasing pressure to abide by state standards and improve their performance under Gov. Bush’s education reform programs he called the “A+ Plan.” Students’ performance on state-mandated annual exams, combined with other factors, resulted in letter grades being given to each public school, essentially marking schools in a very public manner as passing or failing. Private schools were not subjected to any of these requirements, which critics of the voucher programs frequently pointed out. Additionally, the private schools taking in voucher students had very little in the way of academic oversight or tracking by the state.

In all three voucher programs, the participating private schools could be sectarian or nonsectarian. However, for a private school to be eligible to participate in the Opportunity Scholarship Program it had to meet a short list of requirements, including: “Agree not to compel any student attending the private school on an opportunity scholarship to profess a specific ideological belief, to pray, or to worship.”

However, this wasn’t on the list of private school requirements in the other two voucher programs. As a matter of fact, the majority of the schools accepting them were religious. For instance, of all the private schools accepting McKay Scholarship students in the 2010-2011 school year, 64 percent were religious and 36 percent were non-religious. In the same school year, the Tax Credit Scholarship private schools were 79 percent religious and 21 percent non-religious.

“Many of the parents bring their kids here because they want a Christian education,” a voucher-accepting private school principal told the Palm Beach Post in 2005. “And a Christian education does not include evolution.” The newspaper noted that the state did not track what curricula were used at private schools and so reporters investigated the issue to find out. A survey found that 43 percent of religious schools that accept voucher students used curricula from distinctively conservative Christian companies. According to the Palm Beach Post, this equated to “about 375 voucher-taking schools, educating about 8,700 students” statewide.

One such company is A Beka Book, which is based in Pensacola and affiliated with Pensacola Christian College. Its science textbooks are based on Biblical literalist and young earth creationist beliefs. The Post pointed out that a sixth-grade science textbook sold by the company was advertised as: “This teachable, readable, and memorable book presents the universe as the direct creation of God and refutes the man-made idea of evolution.” The same book and description is still offered on the A Beka Book website in 2012. An eighth-grade textbook contains a chapter on “science versus the false philosophy of evolution.”

As soon as the Opportunity Scholarship Program became a reality, opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Education Association, sued to have the program stopped. They claimed that the voucher program violated both the federal and the state constitutions in multiple ways. One complaint was that when voucher money went to private religious schools the program violated the Florida Constitution, Article I, Section 3, which states: “No revenue of the state or any political subdivision or agency thereof shall ever be taken from the public treasury directly or indirectly in aid of any church, sect, or religious denomination or in aid of any sectarian institution.”

The case, Holmes v. Bush, was bounced back and forth among the Florida courts. In 2004 an eight-judge majority of the whole Florida Court of Appeals determined that the Opportunity Scholarship Program did violate that state constitutional provision. It was also determined that the program violated another, separate provision that requires the state to provide a “uniform, high quality education.” An appeal kicked the case up to the Florida Supreme Court where it was determined in 2006 that the vouchers were unconstitutional under the “uniform” education provision. However, the justices declined to offer an opinion on the aid to sectarian institution provision.

The end result, though, was that Opportunity Scholarship vouchers could no longer be used at private schools. The other two voucher programs – McKay and Corporate Tax Credit – were not affected, and there has yet to be any legal challenges to them.

4 Responses to “Rotten apples”

  1. Jonathan Says:

    Great response Brandon I agree 100%. What happens when students enter their 1st year of college only to discover they have to relearn 12 grade biology. Welcome to the real world!!! Of course, students could attend Liberty University and feel right at home. So how would Ron view this? I have to admitt that Ron Matus would be one of the last people who I would have expected to take up the accomodationist stance,very dissapointing.

  2. Ron Matus Says:

    Hi Brandon, here’s my response. I’m posting it both on the FCS blog and over at redefinED:

    Not surprisingly, Florida Citizens for Science spokesman Brandon Haught responded to my post about why science advocates should embrace school choice. Brandon has both an extraordinary knowledge of and a passion for science education, and I appreciate his feedback. But I was hoping for a more thoughtful response.

    Brandon preferred to dwell on the scientific shortcomings of many religious schools, which I had readily conceded in my post. But he devoted not a word to the shortcomings in public schools, both with science instruction and general instruction, when it comes to low-income kids. Perhaps he didn’t put up much of a defense because there isn’t one.

    Brandon intended to criticize the teaching of creationism and other religious beliefs in private schools when he wrote, “Don’t worry if that juicy apple has a rotten spot, folks. Just quickly swallow the mush and move on.” But his analogy could just as easily apply to public schools, because low-income students are performing tragically in science. Despite recent improvements in Florida, these same students are also still struggling far too much with basic literacy and numeracy, the obvious building blocks to improved science literacy.

    I don’t see the black-and-white world Brandon does. I see lots of gray and tough tradeoffs. Science instruction in public schools is suffering in part because they have failed – some would say refused – to take basic steps to erase the critical shortage of high-quality science teachers. Meanwhile, there are a good number of religious schools that do NOT have any hang-ups about evolution; they could be enlisted to bring science instruction to a higher level if they were viewed as potential partners rather than as enemies.

    As for students receiving Florida’s tax credit scholarships to attend those private schools, the evidence to date shows they are doing modestly better in reading and math than their peers in public schools and that these gains are growing stronger over time. These students, the research shows, were the ones who were struggling the most in public schools.

    These promising results are at odds with Brandon’s contention that “if any subject is being taught in a private school supplants reality with ideology, then the whole barrel of apples is suspect.” Obviously, there are plenty of strongly religious people who believe in God at the same time they accept the evidence of evolution. Some of them, in fact, are strong supporters of Florida Citizens for Science. Why is it so hard, then, to believe that some low-income parents who access “vouchers” can manage the same kind of compartmentalization – that they can want their kids to be taught creationism, but, at the same time, also want their kids to excel at all the other academic pieces that are necessary to graduate and go to college and be successful in life? Why would we want to take that option away from that parent?

    I’ve only been at Step Up for Students three months. But over that span, a number of parents have sent the organization thank-you letters. At least half a dozen have trickled down to my little nook. They are remarkable letters, all handwritten, and I’ve taped each one to the cabinet drawers above my computer. They’re not the most grammatically correct pieces. But they cover so much emotional ground in so few words, they’re almost poetic. There’s fear and desperation, love and humility, relief and gratitude, all spinning around twin axes: their child, the most precious thing they have in the world, and the deep-seated and maybe even universal belief that a good school will take their child to a better place.

    I don’t know what those parents think of evolution. But I have no doubt they want the best education for their kid.

  3. Brandon Haught Says:

    I agree: science education in public schools has serious failings. There are many outstanding teachers. There are some schools with spectacular science programs overall. But there are problems galore at all levels from the Department of Education all the way down to individual classrooms when it comes to science education. Every time the science FCAT results are released I post on my blog my disappointment at the sad state of affairs. That’s why I volunteer my time and effort at Florida Citizens for Science. That’s why I recently got my bachelor degree in science education/biology. I care and I want to do something about the problems.

    I agree: many private schools have great science programs. When it comes to the whole voucher issue overall I have to admit that I don’t know much about the debate either for or against. That debate is also outside of the scope of Florida Citizens for Science’s mission. So, based on my lack of knowledge about the issue and based on FCS not really having a horse in that race, I’m not going to get drawn into debates about voucher programs overall. But, yes, there is no doubt in my mind that there are some wonderful private schools with wonderful science programs.

    I agree: many people with strong religious beliefs support the teaching of evolution. You are right in that many folks at Florida Citizens for Science feel that way.

    I disagree: teaching creationism as if it’s real science most certainly should not be supported by public tax dollars. My focus when I wrote my first response to your post and now this response is very narrow. Your argument is (correct me if I’m wrong) that if kids are getting great reading, writing and math education at a private school, then it’s OK to overlook bad science education. My counter-argument is that the science instructors in this narrow subset of creationism-promoting private schools are not just teaching science poorly but are actually teaching the very opposite of science! I also argue that if blatant creationism is being taught in biology classes in these particular schools then I guarantee that other unscientific concepts based on faith rather than science can be found in the geology, chemistry and physics classes. Not only do some of these schools teach creationism, they go a step further and actively teach that evolution is wrong. That way of teaching doesn’t just affect students’ thinking about the one subject of evolution; it gives students a grossly warped view of what science is and how it is done overall! You can have your own opinions, but in science you can’t have your own facts.

    You also argue that parents have a right to choose what kind of education they want for their children. You’re right. But if a school that teaches unscientific garbage is what the parents want, then they definitely should not be using tax dollars to pay for it. Remember: I’m not talking about poor science education. That’s a separate issue. I’m talking about these specific schools teaching the very opposite of science. Your statement “…they can want their kids to be taught creationism, but, at the same time, also want their kids to excel at all the other academic pieces …” just completely blows my mind, Ron. The best reading/writing education program in the world can’t justify gross negligence in other areas of the curriculum.

    A science program that teaches real science is something “necessary to graduate and go to college and be successful in life.” Students who excel at reading, writing and math due to their stellar education in these areas at a creationism-promoting school are going to be utterly shocked to discover that they need remedial science classes in college. I would even take my argument a step further and predict that some students in this type of situation may decide against science careers as a direct result of their exposure to false information fed to them in the creationism-promoting schools.

    Public tax dollars absolutely should not be used to fund these specific private schools. Period.

  4. Jonathan Smith Says:

    Ron, Ron, please just throw away your shovel, you’re just digging a bigger hole to fall into. You can justify your accomodationist position any way that makes you feel better, but you are still on shallow ground. Brandon is correct in his statements; evolution permeates biology, chemistry physics, both supporting them and being supported by them. To teach these subjects without regard to this central nature of evolution does students a grievous disservice. It is this critical point you choose to wallpaper over. Yes many members of FCS have religious views and are able to except evolution. I sincerely doubt if your science teachers in private schools comprehend TOE even if they choose to present it. To me there’s something about holding an irrational, unsupportable belief which makes people desperate to find vindication by any means possible, and that justifies lying (to students), cheating, and thoroughly reprehensible behavior. “By any means possible” is their motto. Why an earth would any one want to funnel tax dollars into a corrupt system which releases confused students into a scientific world of realities no matter how well they can read, write, or know who the 8th president of the US was?