Florida Citizens for Science board member and middle school science teacher Mary Bahr attended today’s Senate Judiciary committee meeting to testify against Senate Bill 2692, the deceptively-named “academic freedom” bill. The following information is based on my e-mail and phone correspondence with her following the meeting.
Bahr said that the other issues on the committee’s agenda flew by. The proceedings then slowed considerably once SB2692 came up. Senator Ronda Storms, who had introduced the bill in the Senate, started off the procedures by presenting her bill, stating that teachers were discriminated against and that the bill was not intended to introduce religion into the classroom. Storms was very careful in her wording and had a tendency to avoid directly answering some questions. One of the biggest issues that came up involved the teaching of intelligent design. Storms was sharply questioned by Senator Ted Deutch about the documentation for teacher discrimination and Storms repeated that some teacher felt discriminated against, but she never did provide any actual proof. Deutch also asked if this would prevent the teaching of intelligent design and Storms did not answer the question. Senator Don Gaetz asked the question in reverse: does the bill support the teaching of intelligent design and her answer then was no. Note the difference between supporting and preventing. They are key words here. It appears through the careful phrasing of Storms and other senators that intelligent design won’t be mandated, but it might not be prevented either. It seemed that Gaetz’s question was purposely loaded to elicit the appropriate response from Storms.
Surprisingly, there weren’t many people on hand to speak before the committee. Bahr said that it was just her and Rebecca Steele of the ACLU against the bill and about five people in support of the bill. However, only two of the supporters spoke at length due to time constraints.
Speakers included John Stemberger of the Florida Family Policy Council — although he insisted he was only representing himself — who advocated for the bill and gave anecdotal evidence of teachers who have been discriminated against. Bahr said Stemberger read from about three e-mails. However, once again it should be noted that no definitive proof of discrimination was offered beyond the unsubstantiated stories Stemberger related from the e-mails. Another speaker for the bill represented himself as a scientist and advocated for intelligent design (I don’t think Bahr got his name). Steele testified about the threats of lawsuits because of the bill and that it is another stealth attempt to insert intelligent design into the classroom. Bahr followed her. Bahr provided me the text of her speech, which I’ve included below. Bahr said it was obvious that many of the senators had already made up their minds on how to vote; a couple of them were carrying on conversations while Bahr gave her speech and so didn’t hear a word she said.
Early news briefs said that the vote was 6-3 along party lines in favor of the bill. However, the Senate website said it was 7-3. There are 11 senators on the committee, and Bahr said that Senator Arthenia Joyner (D) was not present. However, the Senate website attendance sheet said that all senators were present. Maybe Joyner left at some point? It’s believed that Joyner might have been a fourth no vote had she been on hand.
Bahr said that Senators Deutch and Steven Geller should be applauded for their honest attempts to get to the truth of this matter.
Here is Bahr’s speech:
My Name is Mary Bahr and I have been a middle school science teacher in Florida for 15 years. I am a National Board Certified Teacher, and served on the new state science standards writers’ committee.
I have taught middle school life science and evolution for at least 10 years and have always felt free to fully cover that curriculum. As a National Board Certified science teacher, I have taught workshops and new teacher prep courses and have come to know many science teachers around my district. We constantly discuss curriculum and teaching approaches and I have never heard anyone express concern for their academic freedom or that they felt constrained from teaching all the scientific evidence surrounding any concept, including evolution. Consequently I find the purpose of Senator Ronda Storms bill SB2692 confusing. The recently passed State Science Standards ensure that students have the opportunity according to Nature of Science benchmark SC.912.N.1.3. to: ” Recognize that the strength or usefulness of a scientific claim is evaluated through scientific argumentation, which depends on critical and logical thinking, and the active consideration of alternative scientific explanations to explain the data presented.” This certainly opens all standards, including evolution, to critical examination by both teachers and students. So my question as a classroom teacher is what does this bill direct me to do that I would already not do under the new standards?
Clarity is an important part of effective implementation of academic standards. Without clear direction from academic standards a study in the Spring 2008 American educator reports that “teachers do not have a common understanding of what students should have learned …what they are expected to master … or what they are preparing to learn. Neither do textbook writers, professional development providers, or assessment developers have clear direction.” So clarity lost by passing SB2692 will in my experience reduce the effectiveness of our nationally acclaimed science standards.
This bill becomes even more confusing when you note that although the bill does not “promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs”, Senator Storms recently said in a Tampa newspaper that “Under this bill, if you have a teacher who is pro-evolution and every student is intelligent design … that teacher is safe to teach that as a theory.” I do not consider the belief in intelligent design as “scientific evidence”, neither do the courts and neither does mainstream science. But apparently Senator Storms, who wrote and originally sponsored this bill, does see it as science. So, again if this bill passes what will we be teaching in our science classrooms and what will the consequences be?
The reason I took the time to come here on my spring break and volunteered to write the science standards over the last year is that I want our children to receive the very best science education we can give them. There are two big reasons why I think this is so important: they are security and prosperity. The tools of science called theories provide just that for us today. With the proper preparation, they can continue to protect us and our children from a future that is surely changing. Good science education will ensure graduates from Florida’s schools will be ready to step into the high tech jobs that will result. Our new standards have been widely hailed as a great beginning on doing just that. Senator Storms’ bill muddies the waters and takes us away from our job of preparing for the future. Please vote yes for Florida’s future by voting no on SB2692.
Bahr said that later on Storms approached her and said that the quote in the Tampa newspaper was inaccurate. Somehow, the way it came across was not what she actually intended to say. However, it should be noted that there was plenty of talk about intelligent design during the committee meeting, and there obviously is still some confusion concerning the subject due to purposely tricky phrasing and refusal to properly answer certain questions. Also keep in mind that on the House side, Rep. Hays hosted the Expelled movie debacle, during which intelligent design became an issue.
The unverified voting record (due to differences in what news sources are reporting and what the Senate website is reporting): Voting for the bill were senators Villalobos, Baker, Portilla, Fasano, Gaetz, Saunders and Webster. Voting against the bill were Deutch, Geller and Ring.