Lawmakers’ Instructional Materials Proposal: Costly Headache for School Boards
Jan 11, 2016
Florida Citizens for Science
Florida Citizens for Science opposes companion bills filed in the Florida House and Senate, HB899 and SB1018, both entitled “Instructional Materials for K-12 Public Education.” We assert that these bills are in conflict with Article IX of the Florida Constitution that requires “a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education.” These bills would allow those with no relevant qualifications to change local school districts’ curricula based on personal beliefs and ideology, in opposition to the concepts of “uniform” and “high quality.” The bills would also clash with “efficient … public schools” by potentially subjecting school districts to damaging, lengthy and costly court challenges. Furthermore, taxpayers currently have avenues available for their voices to be heard when it comes to instructional materials. In a misguided attempt to give citizens more power, the bills erode the authority and efficiency of education experts who are trained and experienced at evaluating and selecting appropriate instructional materials as well as subject area content experts who ensure the materials’ accuracy.
Florida Citizens for Science has the following specific concerns about HB899 and SB1018:
Costly Court Challenges
These bills can expose school districts to costly and time-consuming litigation. The terms “inflammatory” and “controversial” contained in the bills are ill-defined and subject to interpretation, allowing anyone to challenge instructional materials with the claim that they’re inflammatory or controversial to Christians, Muslims, Wiccans, Satanists or any special interest group. This is not an idle point. Consider how a Satanist group successfully lobbied for a holiday display in the Florida Capitol.(1) School boards will risk frivolous legal action every time they turn down a complaint, leaving them exposed to potential damages, injunctive relief, attorney fees and court costs. Furthermore, school districts who willingly submit to challenges from creationists concerning how evolution and related topics are presented in instructional materials will certainly face immediate court challenges that could cost the district a million dollars or more.(2) For the school boards, this legislation creates a minefield of no-win scenarios.
Unqualified vs. Experts
These bills are akin to legalized extortion: any individual muckraker can object to instructional materials and have their protest treated as a show-stopper. Currently, Florida parents unhappy with instructional materials are entitled to complain to their local school board, whose decision is final. These bills extend standing to challenge from parents to any taxpayer. These bills also give additional weight in reviewing instructional materials to unqualified taxpayers, which dilutes and devalues the input of qualified experts.
These bills would empower taxpayers to object to the use of specific instructional materials in the public schools, for example on the grounds that they fail to provide “a noninflammatory, objective, and balanced viewpoint on issues.” As it applies to Florida Citizens for Science’s field of expertise, science education, we have noted that the organizations with whom these bills originated have documented their complaints against established factual science. They wish to balance scientific evidence for evolutionary biology with blatantly religious creation stories.(3) If acted upon by any school district, this would be a clear violation of the establishment clause of the first amendment to the Constitution as repeatedly upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Currently, instructional materials used in Florida’s schools must be consistent with the state science standards. The bills state that instructional materials may alternatively be consistent with “standards that are equivalent to or better than the applicable state standards.” No criteria for assessing the relative quality of standards are provided. Who will determine if a set of presented standards are “better” than the current standards? Furthermore, a revised set of state science standards are due to be completed later this year after two years of hard work. These bills could make the new standards, forged by subject matter experts, irrelevant. Why have expertly crafted state standards if any unqualified person can claim that some other un-vetted set of standards is equivalent or better?
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1. “Satanic Temple display comes to Florida Capitol,” Tallahassee Democrat, Dec 22, 2014:
2. In the federal court case Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, the school board had inserted an alternative to evolution in the curriculum, was challenged in court, and lost. The small school district had to pay legal fees in excess of $1 million. See: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/evolution/intelligent-design-trial.html
3. See National Center for Science Education: http://ncse.com/news/2015/12/antiscience-bills-florida-0016838 and Florida Citizens for Science: http://www.flascience.org/wp/?p=2378
• Brandon Haught, Florida Citizens for Science Communications Director and author of Going Ape: Florida’s Battles over Evolution in the Classroom: email@example.com.
• Jonathan Smith, Florida Citizens for Science President: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Florida Citizens for Science is a statewide organization formed in 2005 with the goal of promoting and defending sound science education in Florida: www.flascience.org