It's uncertain if Louisiana children are benefiting from the state's new science education law, but it's clear New Orleans isn't. Last month, a scientific society announced that its 2011 convention, an 1,800-person event, would pull out of New Orleans because the organization considers the new law, the Louisiana Science Education Act, an anti-science initiative.
Richard Satterlie, president of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, explained in an open letter to Gov. Bobby Jindal that the society would also encourage other organizations to boycott Louisiana, and urged Jindal "to take actions to repeal SB 561." Satterlie couldn't even bring himself to call the act by its official name.
Why not? State government found few problems with the bill, which allows teachers to use supplemental materials for understanding scientific theories like evolution. It sailed through the state House of Representatives with only three naysayers, passed the state Senate with no opposition and Jindal quickly inked it into law on June 25, 2008. Why would any group, including the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS), which publishes the magazine Science and represents 10 million scientists, be opposed to a law that, by its definition, "promotes critical thinking skills" — especially one that was originally called the "Louisiana Academic Freedom Act"?
The answer is simple but elusive. The Louisiana Science Education Act cracks open the door for questions about evolution (AAAS says "there is virtually no controversy about evolution") and allows materials that haven't been approved by the state's Department of Education to be used to foster that question in children's minds. The bill's original creator, the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF), a self-described "voice for traditional families in Louisiana," insists the new law is religiously neutral. According to the Rev. Gene Mills, the group's director, "As written, it's bulletproof."
Not so fast, says state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, who voted against the act when he was a state representative. There's little chance the Legislature will overturn the law, but Morrell considers it a piece of stealth legislation that won't stand up in court: "It's a federal lawsuit waiting to happen that the state will lose."
Louisiana public school textbooks must adhere to state content standards, but that's not the case when it comes to the Science Education Act's supplemental materials. According to the act, instructors must teach from the textbook, but can also use additional books and instructional materials. As for who chooses these added resources, that responsibility falls with the local school board.
Barbara Forrest, a member of the Louisiana Coalition for Science, which opposes the science education law, says school boards aren't required to get the state's approval before implementing these curricula additions.
"This law was passed for people who already want to do it," Forrest says. "If they already want to do it, they're not going to ask permission."
Forrest points to the Ouachita Parish School Board in Monroe. In November 2006, the school board passed an academic freedom resolution, which closely resembles a proposed school board policy on science education written by Darrell White, a former Baton Rouge judge who founded the LFF along with Tony Perkins, a former state representative and current head of the Family Research Council.
Danny Pennington, then a science instructor at West Monroe High School (now assistant principal at Good Hope Middle School in West Monroe), said the resolution was necessary because science teachers in the district feared talking about controversial subjects. Pennington prepared a 10-page outline of supplemental materials Forrest characterizes as "just a bunch of creationist stuff he pulled off the Internet."
In the beginning of the outline, Pennington instructs his fellow teachers: "The evolution controversy is not between science and religion. It is a controversy between two different interpretations of science." Pennington never elaborates what the interpretations are, and is quick to alert teachers that the policy doesn't authorize the teaching of creationism or intelligent design.
Pennington's outline might not openly endorse intelligent design — the idea that life is a result of purposeful design by an intelligent agent, rather than natural selection — but it does include the viewpoint of Jonathan Wells, one of its leading proponents. Wells, a scientist at the Discovery Institute (DI), a national conservative think tank that has attacked evolution as a controversial theory and promotes intelligent design, once wrote that he had devoted his life "to destroying Darwinism" and has been criticized by the scientific community for misquoting scientists, lying and misleading the public.
The outline doesn't mention Wells' background, but it does offer a blog entry by Wells as evidence against evolution as well as his two anti-evolution books. Pennington also cites examples of scientific hoaxes, such as Piltdown Man: "a great embarrassment to the scientific community!"
Spurred on by success in Ouachita, LFF took the legislation to the state level in 2008. Mills says his organization wrote the state bill, but says it did consult with the Discovery Institute. After the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial in 2005, in which a federal judge determined intelligent design was not science and was linked to creationism, the institute also started promoting "academic freedom."
In early 2008, DI launched its academic freedom petition in order for teachers and students to have the freedom "to challenge Darwinism." On the petition's Web site is a model for a statute on evolution and academic freedom, which contains this section: "Nothing in this act shall be construed as promoting any religious doctrine, promoting discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promoting discrimination for or against religion or non-religion."
That section, nearly word for word, is now part of Louisiana state law.
Finding the right legislator is critical for getting a bill passed, and LFF had a friend in state Sen. Ben Nevers (D-Bogalusa). When he was a state representative in 2003, Nevers submitted a bill that said public school systems should refrain from purchasing textbooks that fail to offer a balanced view on differing scientific views on the origin of life. Now a state senator and chair of the senate's education committee, Nevers sponsored the new bill as a matter of academic freedom. In explaining the connection between the proposed legislation and LFF, Nevers told the Hammond Star, "(LFF) believes scientific data related to creationism should be discussed with Darwin's theory."
By the time the bill reached his education committee, Nevers was telling panel members and the public it did not promote religion or introduce it into the classroom. Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT), attended the committee hearings and, despite bringing what he described as a "gaggle of scientists" with him to speak out against the legislation, watched the committee approve the bill unanimously. During the hearing, public supporters of the bill repeated the notion that teachers were afraid of teaching outside of the textbook, but Monaghan says he's never been contacted by any of LFT's 20,000 members regarding this alleged problem. For Monaghan, the introduction of supplemental materials that aren't expertly reviewed before being used in the classroom raises a much larger problem for the state.
"The deeper question is: What are the standards?" Monaghan says. "How do we ascertain what the standards are?"
Morrell says his colleagues in the legislature were inundated with form emails in support of the Louisiana Science Education Act. He says the bill was ambiguously written, and legislators and the public misunderstood it to be about choice, not introducing questionable materials into the science classroom. Morrell adds that LFF's lobbying efforts pressured lawmakers: "There are large portions of the state where their support can make or break you as a politician."
Mills disputes the idea that Because the Louisiana Family Forum is religiously based, and its mission is, as he puts it, "to present biblical principles in the centers of influence throughout the state of Louisiana," the Science Education Act is a creationist bill. He says the U.S. Supreme Court has already established precedence in regards to creationism in Edwards v. Aguillard, in which the court declared unconstitutional a Louisiana law requiring creation science be taught along with evolution.
LFF hasn't endorsed any supplemental materials, but Mills says when a Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) proposed a policy on the new act that stated creationist and intelligent design information weren't permissible, LFF persuaded BESE to remove the prohibition. He says what happens to the law is up to the teachers.
"Will some teacher go off the line somewhere? I certainly think that's what Barbara Forrest is hoping for," Mills says. He maintains the law is religiously neutral, and can withstand a court challenge.
Monaghan from LFT disagrees. He believes academic freedom and critical thinking were never at stake — critical thinking skills are taught and supported throughout the state's science curriculum — and that the law will end up costing Louisiana time and money.
"We've now got a solution that didn't have a problem, but now the solution has created the problem," Monaghan says. "So we'll continue to fight a battle that we've already seen other communities rip themselves apart around."
Note: "Academic freedom bills" have been introduced in six state legislatures, but to date, Louisiana is the only state to pass such a measure.