July 1, 2017; Washington Post
When Governor Rick Scott signed HB989 into law, he opened a Pandora’s box of controversy for every local school district in Florida. Under the new legislation, local school districts must now offer an opportunity for residents of their county to challenge the curriculum or textbooks on offer. The heated disputes that will arise from these challenges will divert already scarce resources and threaten the quality of education Florida’s children will receive.
Sarah Kaplan at the Washington Post writes that the new law “requires school boards to hire an ‘unbiased hearing officer’ who will handle complaints about instructional materials, such as movies, textbooks and novels, that are used in local schools. Any parent or county resident can file a complaint, regardless of whether they have a student in the school system. If the hearing officer deems the challenge justified, he or she can require schools to remove the material in question.” To guide their decision-making on what is appropriate, the law offers only broad suggestions: Materials should be “accurate, balanced, noninflammatory, current, free of pornography…and suited to students’ needs.”
According to the description in Nature, Florida’s new law is part of a multistate effort ostensibly to “embrace ‘academic freedom’ and present the full spectrum of views on evolution and climate change. This would give educators license to treat evolution and intelligent design as equally valid theories, or to present climate change as scientifically contentious.” Oklahoma and South Dakota also introduced academic freedom bills this year; both passed their state senates but were either defeated by or never reached their state Houses of Representatives.
Advocates for these bills deny they are anti-science. The lead sponsor of the bill in Florida told Nature that “one of the key things about this bill, and why I think it passed, is that we didn’t target any one subject matter.” But for many who supported the effort, the motivating force was in fact scientific positions they didn’t like. In an affidavit submitted by the Florida Citizens Alliance, one of the advocacy groups that lobbied for the bill’s passage, a concerned parent set forth their case:
There is a liberal agenda being taught in our schools. I have repeatedly attended School Board meetings where parents express their frustration over simple math concepts being taught as a process rather than an outcome. Students and parents are so frustrated with having to perform for process that our students are failing because of the anxiety they experience in this curriculum. The Superintendent of Collier Schools will not change the books being used to teach math, this despite repeated evidence that the Singapore Math curriculum is a Best Practices Curriculum and results in higher achievement scores.
Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, sees this campaign as an attack on quality science education. He told Nature that “the people pushing the bill have been complaining about evolution and climate change. It’s obvious that a strong motivation is getting that out of the textbooks.” He worries that “the success of the Florida bill could open the door to measures in other states that adopt the same back-door approach to altering science education by means of broader academic censorship.” Many educators contend that this law won’t improve the educational materials being used in Florida’s schools. Rather, it will bring the political battles over evolution, climate change, or the way math is taught into an unlimited number of time-consuming and expensive hearings.
But, there’s another danger. By moving the battle over educational materials from statewide processes to the level of local school districts, every public school board must now create a forum for its citizens to challenge anything of which they do not personally approve. This adds new financial and managerial strain to already overburdened public school systems and opens the door for decisions to be appealed and challenged in the courts, forcing school boards to choose between paying the added costs of litigation and compromising their educational judgement.
In some ways, this tactic mirrors a staple one employed by those desiring to suppress the vote by trying to remove voters from the rolls. As described in Mother Jones, challenges to the accuracy of the voter rolls have worked most effectively in poorer jurisdictions, targeting “small counties with significant minority populations that were more likely to settle than shell out precious tax revenue for a court fight.”—Martin Levine