Sunday, August 03, 2008


Of Rocks and Hard Places

And so it begins!

As you brave few who follow these mental drippings doubtless know, the state legislature of Louisiana has perpetrated a boondoggle for constitutional lawyers entitled the "Louisiana Science Education Act."

The law allows local school boards to approve supplemental material for science teachers as they present lessons on evolutionary biology and global warming, among other topics. The state school board has the authority to ban certain materials, a power that critics of the bill hope will keep discussions of biblical creation and intelligent design out of the public school science curriculum.

As is immediately obvious, the legislature put the state board and its staff squarely in the cross hairs. Now the New Orleans Times-Picayune is reporting the first squirming of the state educational bureaucracy.

[Board of Elementary and Secondary Education President Linda] Johnson said her priority is to keep the state Department of Education out of court. She added that she does not believe the legislation gives the state power to require local school boards to notify the state of what materials are approved at the local level. She said she would like to see the state board publish a list of recommended materials. The board's additional tasks, she said, will be to consider the protests of individuals or groups that oppose some action of a local board.

In other words, she is hoping that the focus of disputes over the law will be between the local school boards and those trying to maintain separation of church and state, while the BESE sits back and acts like a referee and general counselor to the school boards.

Not likely!

The relevant portions of the law read as follows:

B.(1) The State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, upon request of a city, parish, or other local public school board, shall allow and assist teachers, principals, and other school administrators to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools 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. ...

C. A teacher shall teach the material presented in the standard textbook supplied by the school system and thereafter may use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner, as permitted by the city, parish, or other local public school board unless otherwise prohibited by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

One reasonable, at least, interpretation of the law is that local boards must ask for permission ("upon request") to take advantage of the law, which the BESE must first approve ("shall allow") but over which the BESE has ultimate control. I'd argue that the overall scheme of the law places the onus for creating the "environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking" on the BESE. Contending that the local boards are not required to notify the state of what materials they intend to use seems to me a bureaucratic dodge of responsibility.

It won't do them much good in any event. Under any interpretation, the BESE has veto power over local approvals of supplemental materials. All that needs to be done is for an opponent of any inappropriate supplemental material to put the BESE on notice of its use and any refusal by the board to exercise its power and prohibit it will be state action that will justify suit against it.

The BESE, in no surprise whatsoever, will not be able to devise rules and regulations for the local boards before the opening of the new school year. Thus, any initial rush to take advantage this legislation is likely to be a free-for-all. The hope the BESE has of staying out of court will come about if and only if opponents of creationism are satisfied that no creationist materials are approved. But doing that will frustrate the political forces that instituted this law in the first place.

Scylla and Charybdis would be more fun.

This reminds me of the corporate board meeting in a Rocko's Modern Life episode, wherein the meeting consisted of everyone insisting "It's your fault - no, it's YOUR fault."


Just... wow.

Should be entertaining, at least. For those of us not living there.
... and not paying the legal bills through our taxes.
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