The wave of Republican victories in state legislatures has led to a more favorable environment for creationist friendly legislation to advance. Most of those bills will die in committee but one that has the best chance of passing is an “Academic Freedom” bill currently being debated in the Tennessee legislature. The bill will empower and protect teachers who want to go off their curriculum and teach creationism or intelligent design in their classrooms.
Tennessee House Bill 368 is similar to a Louisiana “Academic Freedom Act” that became law in 2008. It passed out of the Tennessee General Sub-committee on Education on March 16th with a near party line vote, with eight Republicans and one Democrat voting for and four Democrats voting against. The bill was also approved in the House Education Committee on March 29th. Observers are concerned that the bill could become law if it continues gaining support along party lines.
The bill works on the assumption that teachers who want to explain the controversies in topics such as evolution are being bullied or suppressed. The bill’s main sponsor, Representative Bill Dunn told FrumForum:
“It says to teachers, ‘if there are strengths and weakness in the theory or hypothesis you are teaching, and the weaknesses are based on scientific facts, you don’t deserve to be bullied because you present them.”
This is the key language from the bill which allows creationists to go off-curriculum:
Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught. …
Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or any public elementary or secondary school principal or administrator shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.
Steven Newton, a Policy Director for the National Center for Science Education believes that teachers sympathetic to creationism will learn of this law and use it as cover to bring creationist material in their classrooms: “Imagine a teacher who tells their class, ‘This textbook we’ve been using discussed the strengths of evolution, now we will discuss the weaknesses of evolution with the help of this video from the Discovery Institute.’”
For anyone who cares about teaching good science in schools, this law is obviously troubling but the real outrage is that Tennessee currently has an awful science curriculum. According to a study by NCSE, Tennessee gets a “D” grade for the quality of its science curriculum. The study notes that the Tennessee curriculum has an “improved treatment of evolution” (in 2000, the state received a grade of “F” when the Fordham Foundation measured it) but the study also adds that the state currently teaches “no human evolution.”
The irony is that in the past, creationist institutions and advocates used to be allies of laws and reforms which would give a stronger role for a parents choice in their child’s education, whether through voucher programs, charter schools, or even homeschooling. There is a logic to this approach: rather than tear towns and communities apart over protracted and agonizing legal battles, simply give parents the power to choose what education their child can have.
Laws such as HB 368, and other “academic freedom” bills are not about giving parents more options about where they can get their children educated. They are about empowering and protecting those creationists who are already in the public education system and are waiting to be given the legal cover to evangelize and teach bad science.
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