Here’s an opportunity to sound off!

November 27th, 2017 by Brandon Haught

Last week I told you about the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, charged with making recommendations for ways our state constitution can be revised. I pointed out that one suggestion filed by the commissions was this:

4. Deleting language barring state funds from going to “aid of any church, sect or religious denomination.”

In last week’s post I explained why that can directly impact science education in our state. Essentially, making the suggested change to the constitution could open the doors to state funds being funneled via vouchers to many more private religious schools than current voucher programs already do. And that means state funds financing blatant creationism in science classes.

I am rehashing all of this so that I can motivate you to seize the opportunity to do something. The Freedom From Religion Foundation issued an alert notifying us that this bad idea is getting a hearing this Wednesday (Nov. 29) in Tallahassee. Find the details about the meeting here.

Please consider attending. The more voices speaking against this proposal the better. The FFRF will be focusing on religious liberty issues, and if you attend you can talk about the potential science education complications. If you plan on attending, please let us know!

Teaching that global warming is caused by human activity is “blatant indoctrination”

November 26th, 2017 by Brandon Haught

The Associated Press issued a story today about the new Instructional Materials bill approved by our Florida legislature and signed by our governor earlier this year: New Florida law expected to increase conflict over textbooks. Reporter Terry Spencer took on the massive task of asking every Florida school district for records of any textbook challenges so far. A few have popped up, such as:

In Nassau County, north of Jacksonville, a resident challenged the teaching of evolution, arguing that life was created and perhaps planted by space aliens. No hearing has been held.

I already wrote about this (Nassau County complaint: “stop promoting this scientifically inadequate theory of evolution as fact to our students”), but I think the reporter is wrong about one thing. I believe a hearing was held earlier this month. I’m waiting for a reply to a public records request I had submitted to confirm that. And this Tampa Bay Time Gradebook Blog post says that a hearing was held: Pro-science group warns of textbook challenge in Nassau County schools:

Ray Poole, the Nassau district’s legal counsel, told the Gradebook on Wednesday that an independent local attorney recently conducted a hearing on the book challenge and is preparing a summary to present to the School Board.

Another science-related complaint the AP reporter found:

In Brevard County, home of the Kennedy Space Center, a Citizens’ Alliance couple filed challenges against elementary school social studies textbooks, alleging each has dozens of inaccuracies. They say authors frequently ignore American exceptionalism and the books’ assertion that global warming is caused by human activity is “blatant indoctrination.” The district says no changes were made.

I’ll need to look into that one. If I can get my hands on that complaint, I’ll share it. And did a hearing lead to the “no changes” determination or was there no hearing? Is there anyone in Brevard County who would like to help track this down?

Also of note is yet another instance on the record of the Florida Citizens’ Alliance protesting against established science:

The Florida Citizens’ Alliance, a conservative group, pushed for the change, arguing that many districts ignored challenges or heard them with stacked committees, and didn’t consider residents who don’t have children in the schools. […] They also don’t believe evolution and global warming should be taught without students hearing counterarguments.

And I’m happy with my rather bold response:

Brandon Haught, spokesman for Florida Citizens for Science, which opposed the bill, said his group is prepared to fight any challenges made against the teaching of evolution and climate change, which nearly all biologists and climatologists agree are proven facts. Haught, a high school environmental science teacher, said he is surprised social studies and English teachers have not formed similar coalitions to defend their courses.

“The alliance is pushing their narrow ideology on the public schools in any way they can and so far they’re meeting with success. I can’t speak for the other academic subjects they’re targeting, but I know beyond a doubt that their ideology when it comes to science is grossly ignorant and doesn’t belong anywhere near a classroom,” Haught said.

Meanwhile in Marion County …

And now is a good time to report on an issue in Marion County I brought up Nov. 10. In a news story about Marion County’s decision to review and approve instructional materials on their own rather rely on a state-approved list was this: Superintendent Dr. Heidi “Maier was receiving complaints about the district’s science and history books …” I sent a public records request to Marion County asking for copies of those complaints. Their response was that there were none. I then asked them why Dr. Maier mentioned the complaints and the response I got back was: “In speaking with three different departments, including our superintendent, we have received various informal complaints via verbal communications; however, no formal written complaints have been submitted nor exist on file within your stated timeframe.”

Education a target for Constitution Revision Commission

November 24th, 2017 by Brandon Haught

Every two decades a commission is charged with reviewing the Florida constitution and suggesting changes to it. I admit that I know very little about the process, so I will rely on you folks to educate me and guide all of us through the process. I do know that the commission has held public hearings and after some deliberations generated a list of proposed changes to the constitution. This Sun-Sentinel article lists the final 103 proposals. There are quite a few items that target education. For instance, here’s a couple of proposals:

4. Deleting language barring state funds from going to “aid of any church, sect or religious denomination.”

59. Allowing the state to use taxpayer dollars to fund private, religious schools.

I wrote about that part of the state constitution in chapter eight of my book Going Ape. When Jeb Bush was governor he made many significant changes to the education system. In 1999 he worked with the state legislature to create the Opportunity Scholarship Program, which was a voucher program that allowed students who attended consistently failing public schools to either transfer to a high-performing public school or use state funds to attend a participating private school. The program was quickly challenged because the majority of participating private school were religious.

“Many of the parents bring their kids here because they want a Christian education,” the principal of a voucher-accepting private school told the Palm Beach Post in 2005. “And a Christian education does not include evolution.”

The ACLU and the National Education Association sued to have the Opportunity Scholarship Program stopped. They had several problems with the program, one of them being that public money going to private religious schools violated Article I, Section 3 of the Florida Constitution, 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.”

After several years, the final court decision was that the Opportunity Scholarship Program was in violation of the state constitution. The part of the constitution cited in the ruling, though, was one that requires the state to provide a “uniform, high quality education.” In other words, the private schools could use any curriculum they wanted and didn’t have to adhere to any particular education standards, which doesn’t live up to the constitution’s mandate of “uniform” education. Lower court rulings did say the program violated the “aid to sectarian institution” prohibition but the Florida Supreme Court didn’t offer any opinion on that matter, instead focusing on the “quality education” argument. Thus, that program was finally killed.

But there are many other education-related proposals on the commission’s list, such as this:

45. Changing the wording of the “public education” section of the constitution from requiring a system of free public schools that “allows students to obtain a high quality education” to one that allows “for the opportunity for each student to obtain a high quality education.” Also lays out that nothing in this section prevents the Legislature from creating other educational opportunities in addition to free public schools.

Florida does currently have other voucher programs, but not ones that were so wide open as the Opportunity Scholarship Program was. It’s obvious, though, that there is a determined effort to return to the good ol’ days of vouchers for everyone. Will the Constitution Revision Commission’s proposals be a step in that direction?

There are other education-related items on the commission’s list:

10. Requiring civic literacy to be taught in schools.
25. Creating a 17-member board of directors for the state college system, which will oversee all community colleges and state colleges, but not universities.
32. Taking away any compensation except travel and per diem expenses from members of the state board of education, school boards, university boards of trustees and the university system’s board of governors.
33. Ending election of school superintendents and making all of them appointed by county school boards.
43. Preventing people from running for school board if they have been on the board for the previous eight consecutive years.
44. Requiring the vote of nine members of a university board of trustees and 12 members of the university system’s board of governors to increase fees or tuition at a university.
71. Adding to the section on school boards in the constitution that nothing within the section limits the Florida Legislature’s ability to create alternatives to school boards for the establishment of charter schools.
82. Preventing school boards from setting the opening day of school more than a week before Labor Day.
83. Creating a State College System under the Florida Board of Education.
89. Stating that “it is the intent of the people to provide high quality and affordable postsecondary education opportunities.”
90. Changing the maximum class size for a public school of 22 to an average class size of 22 within the school. Additionally, any funds leftover from those appropriated to maintain class size would go toward increasing teacher pay to the national average.
93. Allowing a school board, by a vote of the board or county voters, to turn a school district into a charter school district that is exempt from the same rules and regulations as a charter school.

If you want to track any of the proposals, go to the Constitution Revision Commission website at www.flcrc.gov. And I encourage anyone who knows more about this revision process than I to please volunteer to be our guide. It will be sincerely appreciated.

“Florida’s Bible belt runs the show in Tallahassee”

November 24th, 2017 by Brandon Haught

Most Floridians are still enjoying their turkey eating and deal hunting and so not much is developing concerning the filing in our state legislature of an “academic freedom act” bill by Sen. Dennis Baxley. It was introduced quietly last Friday and as soon as I was alerted to it I spread the word to education reporters across the state. But it’s Thanksgiving week and so many reporters are enjoying a few days off and I presume Baxley is unavailable for comment anyway. So, we won’t see any Baxley quotes or in-depth reporting for a while yet. Nonetheless, the Orlando Sentinel did get us started with a quick story, as I posted about earlier.

But Sun-Sentinel columnist Fred Grimm wasted no time tearing into the bill along with other past creationist shenanigans in his piece: Darwin deniers inject religiosity into Florida biology classes. Here’s just a couple of samples of his take.

But it’s that damned Darwinian theory of natural selection that has these activists frothing. That’s what inspired Ocala state Sen. Dennis Baxley, the former executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida, to introduce yet another bill last week designed to muddle science education in Florida’s public schools. Baxley filed legislation that require “controversial theories and concepts must be taught in a factual, objective and balanced manner.” That same coded language has shown up in legislation in other southern states where lawmakers are intent on injecting ol’ time religion into biology lesson plans.

But thanks to the magic of gerrymandering, Florida’s Bible belt runs the show in Tallahassee. God and guns are our priorities. (The Florida Citizens Alliance website also complains, “Our kids are being indoctrinated in our public schools and being taught that our 2nd Amendment right to self-defense is outdated. They are being taught to support gun control and depend on government to protect them.”)

Except this kind of civic leadership leaves Florida with an intellectual contradiction. Even while we support medical researchers worried about the evolution of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and astronomers who measure distances by millions of light years, we’ve got politicians wanting Florida school children taught that our entire biosphere clocks in at just under 7,000 years old.

But I wouldn’t bet against Sen. Baxley’s bill. The chairman of the Governmental Oversight and Accountability has real power in Tallahassee. Back in 2005, as a member of the House of Representatives, he was co-sponsor of Florida’s infamous Stand Your Ground legislation. Earlier this year, he pushed through a “religious expressions” bill, giving public school students the right to express religious beliefs in school assignments, wear religious clothing and jewelry to school and to “pray or engage in and organize religious activities before, during and after the school day.”

Go read the whole thing for yourself. It’s definitely educational.

What amazes me is that the Alliance has yet to say anything about the bill or the negative response to it yet. Interesting.

The controversy “will never be over”

November 22nd, 2017 by Brandon Haught

The Orlando Sentinel’s School Zone blog posted a short story about the new “controversial theories” bill recently filed by Sen. Dennis Baxley: Sen. Baxley files school bill to require ‘controversial’ science topics be taught in ‘balanced’ way.

State Sen. Dennis Baxley, who once said controversy about evolution being taught in public schools “will never be over,” wants to make Florida school districts teach “controversial theories” in science subjects in a “balanced” manner.

It’s just a quick story with no new quotes. I imagine details will emerge when reporters can interview Baxley after the Thanksgiving holiday. Nonetheless, the word about this bill is starting to spread. A reporter for the Palm Beach Democrat offered a strong opinion about it:

Baxley is the former executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida, and similar language has been used in other states to force science classes to treat evolution as though it were controversial when it is not. Neither is climate change. Or the moon landing. As a journalist, I’m all about being factual, objective and balanced, but I also don’t feel a need to get a quote from a flat-earther every time I mention our planet.

The story is also making the rounds on Twitter where one person tweeted: “Bills going nowhere for $500 Alex.” In other words, that person is predicting the bill will sputter and die. We absolutely can’t let that dismissive attitude flourish! We must treat this bill seriously and do everything we can to defeat it. Keep in mind these points:

  • Baxley sponsored last session’s Religious Liberties in Schools bill (link goes to our blog category of all posts on that topic) that successfully became law. This law will eventually open up a Pandora’s Box of trouble for a school district should any teachers or school staff decide that it protects their right to freely express religious beliefs to students.
  • Last session’s horrible Instructional Materials bill (link goes to our blog category of all posts on that topic) successfully became law and has already led to one school district having to deal with a citizen protesting evolution’s place in the schools’ textbooks. It’s not a matter of if, but when more complaints pop up.
  • The Instructional Materials bill was written and heavily promoted by the Florida Citizens Alliance. That group went on the record several times complaining about evolution and climate change: “[Florida Citizens’ Alliance’s Keith] Flaugh said his group will use it [Religious Liberties bill] in conjunction with the instructional materials bill to contest textbooks that demonstrate ‘bias toward Islam and seldom mention Christianity,’ and promote those that push for a Christian view of the origins of life. ‘Darwin’s theory is a theory, and the biblical view is a theory, and our kids should be taught both in a balanced way,’ he said.” The Alliance is also behind this new “controversial theories” bill.
  • Bills directly targeting evolution were approved by the Florida House and Senate back in 2008. The only reason they didn’t become law was that the two versions needed to be reconciled but weren’t by the time the session ended.
  • Oh by the way, I wrote a book that’s all about Florida’s constant conflicts over evolution in the schools. I’m also a high school science teacher. I know what I’m talking about.

Yes, this is serious. We can’t let Florida follow Louisiana down the “academic freedom act” rabbit hole. Start contacting your local lawmakers now.

“Controversial theories” science education bill filed in Florida senate

November 20th, 2017 by Brandon Haught

We’ve got a live one.

This past Friday Sen. Dennis Baxley filed a bill in our state legislature concerning public education. Senate Bill 966’s purpose is to revise “the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards; providing that such standards are the minimum baseline core content standards for K-12 public schools.” In other words, Baxley would like the use of our state standards to be only the minimum school districts should strive for. They’re encouraged to consider adopting their own set of standards that are “equivalent to or better than these [state] standards.”

What is that all about? Baxley wants school districts to go beyond the basic standards. He wants to allow school districts to raise the bar, so to speak, and challenge schools and their students with more rigorous standards.

Well, that’s what Baxley is trying to sell us. But we can see what he’s really after by reading further into the bill. Go to page three, lines 62 to 66.

62 (b) Science standards must establish specific curricular
63 content for, at a minimum, the nature of science, earth and
64 space science, physical science, and life science. Controversial
65 theories and concepts must be taught in a factual, objective,
66 and balanced manner.

Ah, yes, good ol’ “controversial theories.”

Where did this bill come from? Baxley clearly is working closely with the creationist, climate-change-denying group Florida Citizens Alliance. They had announced last month they were working on this bill.

And they found a wonderful sponsor for their bill. Baxley has a history of disliking evolution lessons in schools. He was a representative in the state house back in 2005 when he sponsored an infamous bill titled The Academic Freedom Bill of Rights. That bill would have prevented “biased indoctrination” by “the classroom dictator.” In defense of that bill he related an upsetting personal story of a Florida State University professor ranting against creationism in class. You can read more about that bill in chapter 8 of my book Going Ape: Florida’s Battles over Evolution in the Classroom.

In 2008 we here at Florida Citizens for Science were deeply involved in the brawl over the inclusion of evolution in the new state science standards. Baxley was then executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida and he had a firm opinion about the issue:

“There is no justification for singling out evolution for special skepticism or critical analysis,” wrote Richard T. O’Grady, executive director of the American Institute of Biological Sciences in a Feb. 8 letter to the Board of Education. “Its strength as a scientific theory matches that of the theory of gravitation, atomic theory and the germ theory.”

The response from Dennis Baxley, executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida: “He’s in error.”

“At one time, the scientific community thought that for good health, you should attach leaches to your body,” said Baxley, a former state representative from Ocala. “We’re just asking them to leave the door open a little bit” for other evidence to be considered.

And that’s not all. Baxley also sponsored last session’s Religious Liberties in Schools bill that successfully passed into Florida law.

In the Florida Senate, her partner in this quest is State Sen. Dennis Baxley, an Ocala Republican who owns a string of funeral homes and was the former executive director of the Christian Coalition of Florida.

Baxley’s not a fan of evolution, and thinks it’s unfair that Florida’s public school children are being exposed to a science curriculum that doesn’t allow that the earth is just 6,000 years old.

They were the guiding hands that successfully passed a bill that would expand the role of religion in Florida’s public schools to levels that have alarmed the American Civil Liberties Union, the Florida Citizens for Science and the Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

There are plenty of other things in this new controversial theories bill about other academic subjects that could potentially raise alarms for those teachers and subject matter experts. But our focus is, of course, the clear attack on science education, specifically evolution and climate change. This Washington Post article from earlier this year briefly explains the purpose of these types of bills:

These bills are worded as “academic freedom” bills, but they really are efforts to present foundational science as controversial. For example, evolution is the animating principle of modern biology, but these laws attempt to allow creationism and evolution to be debated in a science classroom as though they had equal scientific basis. There is no scientific basis to creationist thinking.

This is developing into an all out war against science education in Florida. New laws about the challenging of textbooks (see our Instructional Materials bills ’17 blog category) and religious liberties (see our Religious Liberties Act ’17 blog category) are meant to chip away at classroom science instruction and now this newly proposed bill is trying to blast a hole right through its heart.

Are you ready to help us fight back?

Marion County got complaints about science textbooks

November 10th, 2017 by Brandon Haught

Rather than use the traditional approach of choosing instructional materials from a list vetted and approved by the Florida Department of Education, Marion County is the first school district to forgo the list and review and select textbooks on their own. I posted that interesting news back in September. Unfortunately, we haven’t heard much about the process or the motivations behind it since then. Why are they putting in the extra time, effort and expense to do it themselves?

This seems like quite a newsworthy event and yet no media outlet has jumped on it until now (edited to add: my mistake, other media outlets did report on this back in September, but none of those stores had any mention of science book complaints). The Orlando Fox News station interviewed superintendent Heidi Maier: Residents could have direct input on school textbooks. Here’s an interesting tidbit (bold emphasis mine):

“I said there has to be a way to chose our own and in statute there was, it’s called pathway A. Pathway B is using the state list, we chose to go with pathway A, so we will be able to choose our own textbooks,” said Superintendent Dr. Heidi Maier.

Maier was receiving complaints about the district’s science and history books, along with complaints about low reading proficiency in students throughout the district. It’s a problem that teachers, we spoke to, say needs to be addressed through the text children are reading.

The reporter apparently didn’t follow up or report on what those science textbook complaints were about. I think a public records request to find that out for ourselves is in order.

Marion County residents, please report in to us. Your activism is sorely needed.

(Edited to add: Other media reporting here, here and here.)

Nassau County complaint: “stop promoting this scientifically inadequate theory of evolution as fact to our students”

November 9th, 2017 by Brandon Haught

Florida has a new law this year that allows any citizen, even if he or she doesn’t have a child in the school system, to challenge contents of instructional materials used in the local public schools. Don’t like something you see in a textbook? File a complaint with your local school board and you may get your moment in the spotlight because the new law apparently requires that your complaint triggers a formal hearing complete with an appointed hearing officer. (See our long series of posts about the law at our Instructional Materials bills ’17 blog category.)

That law is now heading out for a test drive in Nassau County. The school board there received a complaint from Mr. Jay W. Shutt last month. I obtained this request via public records request. All bolding and other formatting are his.

PETITION FOR ACTION TO
THE NASSAU COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION

     My request to the Nassau County Board of Education is that we stop promoting this scientifically inadequate theory of evolution as fact to our students.  We should no longer purchase books teaching evolution as proven scientific fact or books that present evolution as proven fact.  Until the current books wear out, I propose placing a disclaimer sticker in the front of every textbook that promotes or presents evolution as proven fact.  The sticker could read something like the following:

This book contains references or information about evolution leading the reader to believe that evolution is proven fact.  Those who believe in Creation Science would argue that evolution is impossible because:  (1) evolution cannot explain the chance formation of  the first  living cell capable of cell division. (2) evolution cannot explain the complexities of life such as the human genome having 3 billion base pairs and the human brain being  capable of more than 20 million billion calculations/second. (3)evolution cannot explain the transfer of intelligence to genes.  For example, how does a pollen grain know when it is at the right place on  the right flower?  How does it know what to do next? And (4) evolution cannot explain the lack of transitional forms (missing links) in the fossil record.  There is not one “so called” missing link agreed upon by all highly qualified evolutionary scientists.

If the Nassau County Board of Education decides to adopt these measures, there is a strong possibility of a threatened lawsuit by groups such as the ACLU.  However, if our lawyer along with a highly qualified molecular biologist (who believes in intelligent design) sit down with these groups and explain that they will need to come up with reasonable, scientific, evolutionary explanations for the serious flaws in their theory, I doubt they would dare a court challenge.

The truth is that the extraordinary advances in microbiology and DNA knowledge have really eliminated evolution as a plausible explanation for life on planet earth.  As far back as 1953 Francis Crick and James Watson began mapping the human genome.  These men immediately became aware that the complexity of DNA far exceeded what evolutionary science could reasonably produce.

Francis Crick, who was an atheist and a believer in evolution, changed his position to accepting that extra-terrestrials brought life to our world.  I’m not sure if he later changed his beliefs, but he still needed to address the issue of “where did the alien DNA come from?”

This is a second reason I don’t think the Board’s decision will actually be challenged in court.  The new scenario that life on earth was brought here by extraterrestrials is about ready to be publically promoted.  It has been programmed into our literature and our films for many years.  UFO sightings and alien encounters have been exploding exponentially for the last few years.  Even the Catholic Church has astronomers on Mt. Graham observatories in Arizona searching the skies for the arrival of our “space brothers.”
All this is coming, and I don’t think organizations who oppose Creation Science will risk a certain defeat in a court of law on the issue of evolution being taught as fact in our schools.  More than likely, they will do everything they can to keep the Board’s decision from making state or national news.

The Board will probably postpone a final decision on this issue until a future date.  Maybe the Board would like to call in experts in the fields of evolution and molecular biology to gather more information.  However, I request that the Board set a timeline for whatever future measures it decides to take.  I make this request because, as human beings, we tend not to rush into areas which may cause us difficulties.  If timelines are not set, decisions may be put off almost indefinitely.   This issue is too important to allow unnecessary delays, and I hope the Board will elevate it to a high priority issue.  Thank you all for your time and consideration.

Sincerely yours,
Jay W. Shutt

Before the new instructional materials law, a request of this type could be dismissed with a polite “thank you for your time.” And that is the proper way to handle nonsense like Shutt’s letter. But no longer. The emails I received in response to my public records request indicate that a hearing was being arranged. An email to Mr. Shutt dated October 6 states:

Mr. Shutt, In follow-up to our conversation and my email to you yesterday, please let me know some dates and times you’re available for a hearing so that I can get it coordinated.  Also, it would be helpful if you would provide me an estimate of the amount of time you believe that you will need to make your presentation.

Thanks.
J. Ray Poole
Chief of Legal Services
Nassau County School District

I’m providing here links to the Word documents Shutt submitted: his request (EVOLUTIONARY PETITION FOR ACTION TO BOARD) that I copied above and his summary of the errors found in some Nassau County textbooks(Evolution is an Unscientific Theory). His summary starts with this:

Since the late 1960’s, and even before that in secular colleges, the theory of evolution has been taught as proven scientific fact.  That is the case in the 3 Nassau County science textbooks (1 middle school and 2 high school) I read.   All 3 textbooks, and almost all science textbooks at any level, begin with a faulty definition of evolution.

I invite you to read his ridiculous summary, which ends with this call to action:

We need to stop teaching a scientifically bankrupt theory which debases our self-worth and eliminates moral absolutes, as proven fact, to our children.  And we need to act as soon as possible!

It will be interesting to see how Nassau County handles this request. I can’t imagine this actually impacting the textbooks there, but you never know. I’m in the process of following up my first public records request with additional requests for updates. I believe that the hearing was scheduled for early November, and so I need to find out what happened. 

This is merely the first challenge. I guarantee more are to come in other counties. And they’ll likely be a bit more sophisticated than Mr. Shutts’ outdated flailing.

By the way, do you know what’s going on in YOUR school district?