This past regular session of the Louisiana Legislature was notable for the absence of a troublesome bill, featured in recent legislative sessions, that dealt with how science is taught in public schools. The bill involves issues that may surface this coming year during a review of the state’s science curricula.
Throughout Republican former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s second term, Democratic state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, of New Orleans, pushed a bill to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act passed during Jindal’s first year in office with his blessing.
The act says that if requested, the state can assist local education agencies in nurturing a school environment “that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning.” However, the law’s application “shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.”
Even with this crystal-clear language, a cottage industry has sprung up peddling the fantasy that the law encourages teaching creationism in public schools.
Peterson’s annual exercise persisted — until this year. With Democrat John Bel Edwards now governor, neither she nor anyone else filed a bill to repeal the act. That’s because the author of the law, former state Sen. Ben Nevers, a Bogalusa Democrat, serves as Edwards’ chief of staff. In the past, surely knowing her bill never would make it out of committee, Carter kept trying regardless as an apparent attempt to make Jindal look bad. She has no wish to do the same to Edwards.
But Peterson’s and others’ opposition to the act should disturb anybody who desires academic excellence in Louisiana education. The law creates a minor incentive for science classrooms to explore important issues and develop critical thinking skills. It also stands as a bulwark against the potential imposition of politically motivated orthodoxy masquerading as science. To oppose the act reveals an intolerance of freedom in academic inquiry — and a willingness to indulge a totalitarian impulse seeking to control information and knowledge.
Even as current political dynamics suggest the law’s survival for the foreseeable future, its aims may come up for discussion during a process led by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to review the state’s science standards. A decade has passed since the last revisions. BESE has decided to review the science standards using a procedure similar to what was used to assess mathematics and English curricula. That process employed panels of stakeholders composed mostly of teachers with considerable public input.
In choosing standards, these panels would do well to emulate the spirit of free inquiry encapsulated in the Louisiana Science Education Act, as scientific inquiry as a whole increasingly becomes threatened by politics. Through hacked email messages among leading scientists, the “Climategate” scandal demonstrated an organized and deceitful effort to validate their assumptions about global warming and discredit fellow scientists who were skeptics.
Given this history in the larger world of science policy and past attempts to repeal the act, BESE should encourage reviewers to adopt benchmarks that foster independent thought, not a party line.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at LSU in Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com, where links to information in this column may be found. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.