The Louisiana Senate is expected to pass a controversial bill the Louisiana Coalition For Science (LCFS) fears is an end-around to allow creationism in public classrooms but the state Department of Education (DOE) sees as a way for local school boards to make better use of taxpayer money.
The Senate Education Committee sent HB580, filed by Rep. Frank Hoffmann, R-West Monroe, to the full Senate June 16. The bill would enable local school boards to buy textbooks that haven't been approved by the State Textbook Adoption Committee without the budget restrictions now in place. Current law states that no more than 10 percent of a district's total budget can be spent on books not on the state's approved list.
"It passed overwhelmingly in the full House; I'm sure it will pass in the full Senate," says Ian Binns, an LCFS member and assistant professor in Louisiana State University's Department of Educational Theory, Policy and Practice who testified against the bill before the Senate Education Committee.
"We were critical about it being open season on the materials they can buy with state money and how they will oversee those resources," Binns says. "Currently our textbook adoption process ... makes sure [textbooks] not only address GLEs (Grade-Level Expectations), but that the information is also appropriate. ... I believe some schools systems will adopt books that have the appropriate material, but then also have a chapter on intelligent design. It becomes a purely political decision. Now the bill will go to the full Senate, and then (Gov. Bobby) Jindal will sign off on it."
Erin Bendily, chief of departmental support for DOE, also attended the committee meeting. She says she doesn't see the bill as a threat to the quality of public education. Instead, she says, it gives local school districts greater flexibility in providing educational resources. "The schools could use any textbooks they want as long as they meet the minimum requirements," Bendily says. "They would have to ensure those texts are aligned with GLE standards.
"The state would still have a process to have the textbooks screened, and the state would certify these textbooks ... fit the state content standards."
The state would maintain its list of approved textbooks, but the books would be "recommended" instead of required, she says, and the bill keeps in place the people who screen textbooks. "We may do random monitoring of school districts and review textbooks and inform the district they can't use the texts if they don't meet the standards," Bendily says. Another recommendation, which isn't in the bill, is to have districts submit books they plan to use for approval at the beginning of the school year, she says.
The LCFS' interpretation of HB580 is that it dilutes the authority and oversight of the DOE and BESE and could have a detrimental effect on public education in Louisiana. "The way we've been reading the bill, there is no oversight from BESE or the Department of Education," Binns says.
Sen. Eric LaFleur, D-Ville Platte, vice chair of the Education Committee, says that's because the issue is covered in the state constitution. "The constitution says BESE shall prescribe all books," he says. "At the end of the day, BESE could step in if a school board goes off on a tangent."
In 2008, the Legislature passed Hoffmann's Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA) — the only so-called "freedom of education act" passed by a state. It allows teachers to introduce "supplemental" materials into classroom discussions, basically opening the door for creationism to be taught and evolution — a major tenet of biology — to be questioned. Textbook selection and approval, however, remains the purview of BESE and the DOE. A group of LSEA supporters last year failed to block BESE's choice of new biology textbooks that include evolution as a premise.
Earlier this year, Baton Rouge Magnet High School senior Zack Kopplin started a campaign to have the LSEA repealed and was joined by 42 Nobel laureates. Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, introduced SB70 to do just that, but the bill failed. HB580, which the LCFS has dubbed a "stealth creationism bill" flew through the House June 8 with only five representatives voting against it.
"I testified against [HB580] when it was introduced in the House Education Committee on June 1," Binns says. "It was never directly stated, but my thought is that [it was introduced this session] because of the textbook adoption in the fall for science textbooks. ... When [Hoffmann] was directly asked if it would allow creationism in the classroom he said, not 'creationism' per se."
Bendily discounts opponents' claims that Hoffmann designed HB580 to sneak creationism into public classrooms. "I don't believe that's the case," she says. "I actually didn't hear that argument until recently, and this bill has been discussed for some time. There are still protections to address those issues elsewhere in law and elsewhere in policy."
"All the bill does, is to add some flexibility for the school board," says committee chair Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa. "Some of our textbooks are a number of years old, and in our system you go through a cycle in adopting the textbooks. There could be a better or more modern textbooks school boards want to use between those cycles. I didn't look at [the bill] as something that would hurt education in Louisiana; I think it could improve it."
The LCFS also fears HB508 will allow "inappropriate understanding of other areas, not just science," Binns says. "This particular bill is not specific to science textbooks. It takes out the ability of the experts to determine if (any textbook presents) appropriate material. How will BESE know that a parish or a teacher has chosen to use inappropriate materials?"
"Those teachers and school boards have too much to lose by teaching stuff that's off the wall," says LaFleur, adding that books failing to meet GLEs would be reflected in poor school performance scores. "To the degree that they do deviate from [the approved list] and select a book that is inconsistent with a GLE, and if it's a book that tries to teach religion, for example, the school board would be faced with lawsuits immediately."
Jeanne Johnson, senior analyst for the Senate Education Committee, says the bill would require a public comment period so people can voice their concerns, support for or opposition to the rule changes.
Binns says if the bill becomes law, the public's only recourse would be to file a lawsuit, which would require proof that inappropriate materials were presented in class or for a teacher to challenge the system.
"I hope it doesn't come to a lawsuit," Binns says. "I hope we could come to our senses before that. I wish they would wake up and realize what they are playing with here. It's not something small, it's a child's future."