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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Dover 2.0: Louisiana's Science Education Act

The Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is expected to adopt new policy today that will determine how public schools implement the state's "academic freedom" bill, known officially as the Louisiana Science Education Act. The act lets teachers supplement state-approved science textbooks with other materials about evolution, human cloning, and global warming, and many people see it as an attempt to undercut the teaching of evolution and sneak religious ideas like creationism and "intelligent design" into public school science classrooms (even though supporters claim the bill hopes only to promote an environment of "critical thinking").
That the bill itself claims not to promote any religious doctrine turned out to be a problem for those hoping for a stricture that would specifically exclude material that promotes "creationism or intelligent design or that advances the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind." During a Tuesday hearing in which proponents and opponents of the bill shared their views with a committee of the BESE, State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek said the language of the bill makes such a ban unnecessary and is enough to leave him "satisfied that you cannot teach creationism or intelligent design." (In August, Pastorek wrote a letter to local school boards and superintendents stating: "Religious theories cannot be advanced under the guise of encouraging critical thinking.") Barbara Forrest, on the other hand, a professor at Southeastern Louisiana University and the leading member of a group advocating for sound science education, has said the disclaimer is a "dead giveaway of the creationist (hence religious) agenda that the law advances." The disclaimer is included "precisely because the legislation is intended to advance religion," she says, and if "the LSEA were truly intended to improve science education in public schools, no religion disclaimer would be necessary." The board agreed with Pastorek, however, and deleted the stricture.
According to Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, no teacher in the organization has complained about science materials, and the issue, he told TV channel WAFB, has created "a stage for what unfortunately seems to be an embedded political movement. We're going to find ourselves getting tied into knots over issues people are invested in by faith, emotion, and miss the big picture."
Even though the BESE is allowed to veto any supplemental material it feels is inappropriate, many worry that religious material will still find its way into the science classroom—and believe it is only a matter of time before legal action results. —Heather Wax