Wednesday, December 30, 2015

FL: Stamping Out Science?

Florida remains an important reminder that as much as I love the idea of local control, it can a powerful instrument for educational malpractice.

Yes, the state has managed to fumble everything from their Big Standardized Test crash-and-burn to making Florida a petri dish for growing some of the most odious reformster groups around (and all of that educational baloney just to help launch Jeb! into the biggest national campaign fizzle since New Coke). They let Bill Gates play with (and crash) a whole school district. But Florida has also allowed local school boards the freedom to make baldly racist assaults on their own school system. Pinellas County schools resegregated their elementary schools and cut off proper funding and support to the poor black ones.

Now some right-wing Common Core opponents are backing proposed laws that would give local taxpayers a tactical nuke to use on their school districts.

House Bill 899 and Senate Bill 1018 are aimed at the book-buying procedure in Florida. Florida Citizens' Alliance is one of the groups backing this measure; on their web page you can find a call to action for both these actions (billed as anti-Common Core legislation) and open carry and campus carry bills.

They would like to see a change in how textbooks are selected. The bill calls for a committee chosen by the local school board, containing at least one third parents, following public meeting laws, and unbound by the 50% digital/electronic content requirement. And one other item, but we'll get to that in a second.

The conditions listed so far are... well, why would you not put textbook selection in the hands of your professional staff? Here in PA, as in many states, the schools put requests before the board. Sometimes they consult their teachers (sometimes, not so much). But the general assumption is that people who teach professionally are knowledgable about what their own professional needs are. Textbook salespersons are a hardy breed, and they will pitch to whoever controls the pursestrings. Like all salespeople, they are often full of baloney and power their pitches with usual sales tricks ("I can only hold this special offer for you for another few days" never fails with one local district). So, yeah, maybe teaming up someone who actually knows the material with, say, a used car salesman might make the procurement process more interesting.

But there's one other stipulation in the bill-- that parents who don't like the selection can appeal to the circuit court.

This is a dumb idea. Dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb.

Part of the dumb is the intent. The National Center for Science Education calls these bills "anti-science." They point back to the Florida Citizens' Alliance website where there are complaints that textbooks treat Darwin and evolution as if it's real and the Bible creation story is not. Plus, there's all this talk about climate change. And Florida has a history of anti-science fervor. At one point, Governor Rick Scott banned any use of the term "climate change" by state officials. If you want to see a full litany of Florida's creative assaults on science, check out the Florida Citizens for Science blog (and really-- in how many states does anyone feel the need to create a group to support science).

But there's no question that these bills would give plenty of leverage to any group of citizens who decided that they didn't want science in the classroom (or, for that matter, history that didn't fit their particular notions of what history should be). Florida does have standards for science and other subjects, but the new laws says that texts can either meet the standards or be even better-- without explaining what would constitute "better" or how that would be decided.

So if this is one more idea about how to roll Florida back into the eighteenth century, that's not a benefit to anybody.

But it's also dumb because it will almost certainly backfire on the supporters.

Advocates for particular political viewpoints make this mistake all the time. All. The. Time. They construct a powerful weapon for winning particular battles, imagining that the weapon will only ever be used by them and the people who agree with them. Religious conservatives got all excited because the Supremes ruled that government meetings could open with prayer, because religious conservatives imagined that they were the only people who would be offering up such prayers. But right in Florida, we got one of the earliest tests as a Florida man demanded to be allowed to open a city council meeting with a satanic prayer.

These laws will seem like a super idea right up until the first time that a family drags a school district into an expensive court case because they demand that schools NEVER teach creationism, or demand that the Flying Spagetti Monster be included in history class, or demand that texts reflect the Flat Earth model of the solar system.

The notion that science should be subject to public debate and court rulings is in itself fundamentally anti-science. Millions of people can agree that the sun circles around the earth; that does not make it so. That's not how science works, and to try to create a system in which scientific facts are open to debate and rulings is, in fact, an assault on science. The folks who are pushing this kind of bill are not doing their state, their schools, and least of all their students any favors. 


  1. In case anyone disbelieves that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a thing, here's the photo from the driver's license of a Massachusetts woman who identifies as a Pastafarian:

    Here's the rest of the story:


  2. Nobody does crazy like Florida. So all you other states, stop trying because we'll only up our game, and as a Florida teacher, that's one thing I don't want to happen.