Wednesday, March 26, 2008
The Bill Is Coming Due
Whatever the quality of Florida's state legislators, The Professional Staff of the Education Pre-K - 12 Committee is certainly on the ball. Here are some of the more relevant parts of the Staff's "Bill Analysis and Fiscal Impact Statement" for the oxymoronic "Academic Freedom Act" presently pending in the State Senate.
AmbiguityThere is more in the report [pdf file] that is worth reading but the above is enough to show that, if this law is enacted, Florida, already in the throes of a budget crisis, would be doing nothing more than throwing away taxpayer money to soothe the narrow apologetics of some of its citizens -- money that would be better spent on the education of all its young people.
The bill references “biological and chemical evolution;” however, it does not define the terms. Accordingly, the protections afforded could easily be misinterpreted or non-uniformly applied. This could lead to litigation exposure for teachers and school districts. Teachers would not know if their presentation of objective scientific information fits within the protected instruction. The ambiguity is further compounded by the alternate uses of “biological and chemical evolution” and “biological and chemical origins.”
The bill also references “objective scientific information;” however, it does not define these terms either. Again, the afforded protections would be undermined by a lack of a clear definition of protected conduct. Additionally, the bill is silent on who defines the objectivity of the scientific information presented. The administration and the teacher may have quite different views on the objectiveness of the information presented.
Teacher Discipline and the Standards
The bill is silent on the school district’s or principal’s authority to discipline a teacher for failing to teach the standards. Presumably, if the teacher is protected when delivering the alternate instruction in addition to the standards, the teacher is not protected for failing to teach the standards or teaching the alternate instruction in lieu of the standards. This should be made more explicit.
Free Speech/Expression Rights of Teachers
The First Amendment affords ample freedom of religious expression; however, it does not necessarily include the right for a teacher or a student to have an audience held captive or to require other students or teachers to participate or adhere to specific doctrine. Accordingly, while teachers retain their First Amendment rights, public schools may limit classroom speech to promote educational goals. School committees may regulate a teacher's classroom speech if the regulation is reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concern and the school provides the teacher with notice of what conduct was prohibited. A teacher's statements in class during instructional periods are part of the curriculum and regular class activity and thus subject to reasonable speech regulation.
There are amendments to the bill, one of which adds a new section:
As used in this section, the term "scientific information" means germane current facts, data, and peer-reviewed research specific to the topic of chemical and biological evolution as prescribed in Florida's Science Standards.The other amendment that is at all relevant changes a provision that students "may be evaluated based upon their understanding of course materials" to "shall be evaluated based upon their understanding of course materials through normal testing procedures."
The first amendment appears more cosmetic than real, in that it does not do anymore than add the equally vague "germane current facts [and] data" without any guidance as to how to evaluate what counts as "facts" and "data" or who is to decide that. The addition of "peer-reviewed research" will, no doubt, revive much ballyhooing of the Discovery Institute's list of "peer-reviewed" articles and books without any semblance of relevance to the actual lessons being taught or the appropriateness of that material to the level of understanding of the students. In short, it will be waived at the students as some sort of evidence that something, somehow is wrong with evolution, instead of actually being evaluated, an utterly bogus form of "education." The second still doesn't address the question of disciplining teachers for failing to teach the material in the standards fully or what happens if the students don't know the course materials.
If you are a Florida citizen, go to the list of legislators at Florida Citizens for Science and call, write and email yours to express your opinion. Rest assured the anti-science forces will be.
Update 03/26/08: The bill passed its first hurdle in the Senate, being approved by the committee on a 4-1 vote. There are more hurdles to go but any Florida citizen in favor of good science education had better get busy on working on their legislators.