The Florida legislature passed during its 2017 session House Bill 989, a proposed law that will affect how instructional materials for schools are selected and challenged. And evolution is clearly one of the topics likely to be targeted if the bill becomes law. It passed its final vote in the Senate 19 to 17, but all of the other votes the bill faced were either approvals by a wide margin or unanimously. At the time of this writing, the bill has been forwarded to Governor Rick Scott. He hasn’t taken action on it yet and he hasn’t indicated whether he will or not.
Below is a detailed analysis of this bill so far. However, there are a few aspects of it that still need to be researched and added to this account. And this looks to be just the beginning. If the bill is signed into law, there will inevitably be challenges made to evolution’s place in schools’ instructional materials at school districts across the state. If a new edition of Going Ape is ever called for in the future, these will definitely be the notes on which a new chapter is built.
What is the history of this bill?
The Volusia County school board was at the heart of a massive controversy over the presentation of religion in history textbooks in 2013. The Daytona Beach News-Journal reported in Volusia schools will keep using history book:
A world history textbook that sparked a heated controversy over the way it covers Islam will remain in Volusia County high schools, the School Board decided Monday after hearing four hours of public comments about its merits and shortcomings.
“I’m still confident with this book and its presentation to our students,” School Board Chairwoman Diane Smith said after hearing from nearly 80 speakers with widely differing opinions.
The textbook controversy erupted in early November after a Deltona High parent complained about the book’s treatment of the Islamic religion to a Lake County friend, who posted information on Facebook and organized a protest rally before the School Board’s Nov. 5 meeting.
The Nov. 5 meeting was canceled before it began over security concerns and the controversy has continued to simmer …
That controversy was at least part of the reason bills were filed during the 2014 Florida legislative session that would change the way textbooks are reviewed and selected for classroom use. The Senate version of the bill would have eliminated the state government’s role in vetting textbooks completely, turning control of the process entirely over to local school boards. That extreme version of the bill didn’t survive, but other changes to the textbook selection process were made. This story in the Naples Daily News provides a good summary, Fight over Collier textbook review could be sign of clashes to come:
But a new Florida law could give both community groups much more power than they have today. And it could lead to many more heated protests over things like textbooks, summer reading lists and other materials used in classrooms.
Legislators passed the measure, known as SB 864, last year that gives local school boards more control over materials used in classrooms and opens the school system’s doors to more parents and others in the community to provide input into textbook selection. School boards must provide a process for public review, comment and adoption of instructional materials. And they must adopt a policy to handle objections and a process for parents to contest the adoption of specific instructional materials.
School districts can continue to use books from the state-approved list. But the law allows them to create their own review process that follows state curriculum standards and to select their own textbooks that aren’t on the state list.
Taking over absolute control of textbook selection and inviting the wrath of local groups that might not agree is not something that school districts in Florida have rushed to do.
Katrina Figgett, director of instructional support for the state Department of Education, said to her knowledge no school districts are taking advantage of that part of the law, though districts do pick books that are not on the state selection list to supplement their instructional materials.
Supporters of the bill were soon disappointed when it appeared that essentially nothing changed. School districts continued to primarily rely on the state’s approved textbook list and people who had problems with the selected textbooks felt like they were still being ignored. The issue burned especially hot in Collier County as reported in this TV report Group protests outside Collier County School Board meeting:
The protesters mobilized after hearing about a citizen review committee for textbooks, mostly made up of conservative groups, including the SWFL Citizens’ Alliance. The SWFL Citizens’ Alliance is the group also fighting to repeal Florida’s common core standards.
”What we’re finding through our individual reviews is a lot of one world government, a lot of rewrite of history,” explained Keith Flaugh of the SWFL Citizens’ Alliance, who said he too is worried about bias.
The SWFL Citizens’ Alliance eventually changed their name to Florida Citizens’ Alliance and gave themselves the mission to craft a new state law that would solve the problems they felt they were having. Keith Flaugh, co-director of the Alliance, wrote a newspaper guest commentary outlining what the new law would do in the 2016 legislative session, Legislature should close loopholes on textbook selection law:
We are very pleased to report that state Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, and state Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, have filed and are championing companion bills to fix F.S. 1006.283 and its loopholes: SB 1018 and HB 899.
The purpose/intent of the original SB 864 was to assign constitutional responsibility for all instructional materials to school boards, and require a transparent policy/process for school boards and parents to remove objectionable materials.
Due to several loopholes in F.S. 1006.283, the spirit and intent of the original bill are currently being ignored by many school districts in Florida.
The bills included a provision allowing citizens who felt they were being ignored by a school board to override the board’s decision by taking their complaints to the court system. And the school board could have been responsible for paying some legal fees in the end. Additionally, the bills stated that instructional materials would have to conform to Florida’s official state education standards or “standards that are equivalent to or better than the applicable state standards.” Definitions for “equivalent” and “better” weren’t provided, opening the door to a wide range of interpretations.
The bills were never scheduled for any committee meetings and died at the end of the session.
But the Alliance didn’t give up. They found new lawmakers to sponsor their bill in 2017: Rep. Byron Donalds filed House Bill 989 and Sen. Tom Lee filed Senate Bill 1210. This time they found success. Both bills sailed easily through all of their committee stops, rarely facing any opposition, debate or questions. But the bills diverged in their respective chambers. If both bills passed, the differing versions would still have to be reconciled. But time was running out. The end of the session was near and the Senate bill was still facing its final vote on the Senate floor. So, Sen. Lee asked his fellow senators to disregard the Senate version and instead approve the House version, which that chamber had approved. For the first time, the bill faced serious opposition and debate. But the bill squeaked by on a 19-17 vote. Now the bill will be forwarded to Governor Rick Scott for signature.
What does this have to do with evolution?
Florida Citizens for Science launched opposition to the bill in December 2015 when research revealed that among the Alliance’s many complaints about textbooks were complaints about the teaching of evolution.
The Alliance typically concentrated on history textbooks, but some of those books have sections explaining human evolution. In this December 22 post, they say that there is a problem with how evolution is presented:
“Florida History: People and Nations” Collier County 6th grade History: These two pages teach the children that we descended from apes. This is stated as a fact not a theory. Nowhere in the material is a balanced discussion of the biblical explanation.
There is a link in their post to a pdf scan of the textbook pages in question.
In a December 15 post they publish a full report on Modern World History, 9th Grade Teacher Edition Year: 2013. Here is one of their critiques:
Study of Darwin’s theory of evolution
Very biased section and Darwin’s conclusions presented as fact and the biblical theory as ludicrous
– Poses the question “how can the earths tremendous variety of plants and animals be explained?” states as fact millions of species exist and fossil records document changes over time. Darwin proved species compete for food and only fittest survive and pass off traits to their offspring.
-while the biblical explanation claims all species created by God on the same day
This is a totally superficial and disingenuous comparison. No reference of fact that both are theories or offer students references like the well documented series called “ The Truth Project” by Focus on the Family.
And a November 2 post is titled: “How To” Suggestions For Creating And Managing A Curriculum Education Watchdog Committee In Your County. One suggestion there is:
Reach out to church leaders to help them understand how evil much of the revisionist content is. The History and literature Common Core uses teaches that nothing is true and everything is permissive. Example: FL 6th grade world History books teach we came from apes as a statement of fact rather than teaching the Theory of Evolution as a theory.
Another post on the Alliance’s website details some problems they have with two other textbooks. First, they have complaints about World History Ancient Civilizations that shows a strongly anti-science, creationist viewpoint. They take issue with the famous “Lucy” fossil being called a human ancestor and they question fossil dating methods. They then take a shot at Miller & Levine’s Biology textbook used in 9th grade. The reviewer doesn’t like the textbook’s claim that evolution has been proven valid by many tests in many different fields of discipline. The reviewer writes a long rant about how many scientists find fault in evolution. But the review is packed with creationist talking points.
Florida Citizens for Science members were happy when the 2016 bills died. But then the 2017 legislative session kicked off.
The Alliance supported the new bills by distributing to lawmakers and the general public an “objectionable materials” list and “sworn affidavits” that describe alleged instances of citizen complaints about textbooks being ignored by several school boards.
In the “objectionable” materials list (link is to a pdf) is this complaint:
World History- Ancient Civilization: Author” Holt McDougal, Publisher: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt 6th grade History: These two pages teach the children that we descended from apes. This is stated as a fact not a theory. http://goo.gl/MNqVBm
That link takes you to a page on the Alliance website that has this additional statement: “Nowhere in the material is a balanced discussion of the biblical explanation.”
There are other similar complaints in the objectionable materials list.
The “sworn affidavits” contain multiple related protests. For example (from 17-02-02 Cash_Mary_Ellen_Collier.pdf):
b. I have witnessed students being taught evolution as a fact of creation rather than a theory. Parental objections are ignored.
c. I have witnessed children being taught that Global Warming is a reality. Now that it is colder and the country is experiencing repeated Cold Waves, the new term is Climate Change. When parents question these theories, they are ignored.
There are several similar complaints in many of the other affidavits.
Furthermore, a news article about the bill, Florida Bills Would Let Citizens Remove Textbooks That Mention Climate Change and Evolution, featured this alarming quote:
Keith Flaugh, co-director of the Florida Citizens’ Alliance, a libertarian advocacy group, argued the bills are about transparency and giving communities greater say in school materials, which he said are currently being chosen by “politicized” school districts and “establishment” textbook companies.
“The science here is not proven on either side,” Flaugh said. “There are lots of scientists on both sides of that equation: Creationism versus the theory of evolution. They’re both theories. And all we’re asking for is both sides of the discussion in a balanced way be put in front of the students.”
When the bill passed its final vote in the Senate, another story, Florida lawmakers pass bill making it easier to challenge textbooks, reaffirmed Flaugh’s stance:
Similar measures have been considered by dozens of state legislatures in recent years, typically backed by conservative organizations and politicians, and viewed by critics as targeting evolution, climate change and sexually explicit material.
“We’re not trying to ban books,” said Keith Flaugh, founder of the Florida Citizens’ Alliance, which pushed for that state’s bill.
He said his group is seeking balance in school instruction, including teaching both evolution and creationism and the various arguments about climate change.
What do the lawmakers say about their bills and science education?
Rep. Donalds admitted that there’s some chance science subjects could be challenged in this story, Teaching of evolution, climate change at stake in Naples legislator Donalds’ bill:
Donalds, whose three sons attend a charter school in Southwest Florida, said the bill is intended to ensure children are exposed to “quality instructional material” that adheres to Florida standards and to provide an easily accessible way for the public to vet classroom materials.
Donalds said the purpose of his bill is not to accomplish a “defined outcome.”
His critics — and there are many — argue the bill would give skeptics of evolution and climate change a platform to influence how those subjects are taught in classrooms or whether they would be taught at all.
“In the extreme case, is that possible? Yes,” Donalds said. “But (some critics) are trying to read down a slippery slope that doesn’t exist.”
Donalds emphasized such changes could be made only if approved by a school board.
In another story, Creationism, evolution optional in Florida classrooms with new bill, Donalds seems a bit more open to citizens challenging evolution in the textbooks:
Evolution versus creationism has been an ongoing debate in Florida’s public schools.
“I think people should be given options on different things like that,” said Beverly Horner of Fort Myers.
State Representative Byron Donalds of Collier County feels the same way.
“It is important that the public is aware of what is actually in the classroom, and if there are objections to what is in the classroom, we have a process that allows for them to be remedied,” he said.
Donalds further said his bill would allow a balanced and non-inflamatory viewpoint on issues like evolution.
Sen. Lee seemed to avoid questions about science education from the media. The closest he came was in this Orlando Sentinel story, Parents may get new way to challenge school textbooks:
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, the Senate sponsor, said the bills are an effort to close loopholes in a 2014 law and make sure residents have a way to challenge school books they view as inappropriate.
Most school textbooks purchased by Florida’s 67 school districts come from a list of state-approved instructional materials. And in most counties, residents likely won’t object, Lee said.
But, he added,“there are some counties where the constituents … believe that the instructional material being vetted by the state is too liberal and therefore some of the instructional material has inappropriate information by their community standards.”
But Lee was briefly confronted with a few science-related questions during the final Senate debates. He, claimed in Friday’s (May 5, 2017) final debate before the vote that concerns about evolution being stripped from textbooks were products of “imagination run wild.” He stated that the bill only allows citizens to complain about pornographic material or subjects that are not suited to the students’ needs and their ability to comprehend the underlying subject matter.
However, in the previous day’s debate on the bill, Sen. Lee referenced the Alliance’s “sworn affidavits” as proof that the bill is necessary.
Sen. Lee’s reference to “pornographic” and “students’ needs” comes from this section of the bill (link goes to pdf of the final bill version):
The process must provide the parent or resident the opportunity to proffer evidence to the district school board that:
a. An instructional material does not meet the criteria of s. 1006.31(2) or s. 1006.40(3)(d) if it was selected for use in a course or otherwise made available to students in the school district but was not subject to the public notice, review, comment, and hearing procedures under s. 1006.283(2)(b)8., 9., and 11.
b. Any material used in a classroom, made available in a school library, or included on a reading list contains content that is pornographic or prohibited under s. 847.012, is not suited to student needs and their ability to comprehend the material presented, or is inappropriate for the grade level and age group for which the material is used.
If the district school board finds that an instructional material does not meet the criteria under sub-subparagraph a. or that any other material contains prohibited content under sub-subparagraph b., the school district shall discontinue use of the material for any grade level or age group for which such use is inappropriate or unsuitable.
Sen. Lee quoted from sub-subparagraph b. He never mentioned in any debate sub-subparagraph a. That’s the part that really worried the folks at Florida Citizens for Science. The devil is in the details of those statutes listed in that sub-subparagraph. For instance, s. 1006.31(2) says (bold emphasis added):
EVALUATION OF INSTRUCTIONAL MATERIALS.—To use the selection criteria listed in s. 1006.34(2)(b) and recommend for adoption only those instructional materials aligned with the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards provided for in s. 1003.41. Instructional materials recommended by each reviewer shall be, to the satisfaction of each reviewer, accurate, objective, balanced, noninflammatory, current, and suited to student needs and their ability to comprehend the material presented. Reviewers shall consider for recommendation materials developed for academically talented students, such as students enrolled in advanced placement courses.
A citizen could say that references to evolution or climate change or even vaccines are not accurate, balanced, or noninflammatory as required in state statute.
But before a citizen could do that, the citizen has to prove that the school board didn’t adhere to the public input process specified in s. 1006.283(2)(b)8., 9., and 11:
8. Establish the process by which instructional materials are adopted by the district school board, which must include:
a. A process to allow student editions of recommended instructional materials to be accessed and viewed online by the public at least 20 calendar days before the school board hearing and public meeting as specified in this subparagraph. This process must include reasonable safeguards against the unauthorized use, reproduction, and distribution of instructional materials considered for adoption.
b. An open, noticed school board hearing to receive public comment on the recommended instructional materials.
c. An open, noticed public meeting to approve an annual instructional materials plan to identify any instructional materials that will be purchased through the district school board instructional materials review process pursuant to this section. This public meeting must be held on a different date than the school board hearing.
d. Notice requirements for the school board hearing and the public meeting that must specifically state which instructional materials are being reviewed and the manner in which the instructional materials can be accessed for public review.
9. Establish the process by which the district school board shall receive public comment on, and review, the recommended instructional materials.
11. Establish the process by which the school district will notify parents of their ability to access their children’s instructional materials through the district’s local instructional improvement system and by which the school district will encourage parents to access the system. This notification must be displayed prominently on the school district’s website and provided annually in written format to all parents of enrolled students.
That’s the heart of this bill. The Alliance and its network of supporters have complained for years that school boards have not been responsive to citizen protests over textbooks. This new 2017 bill will now force school boards to dot their I’s and cross their T’s when it comes to public input. If any citizen feels slighted in this process, he or she could now demand that the school board appoint a hearing officer, as specified in the bill:
… for all petitions timely received, conduct at least one open public hearing before an unbiased and qualified hearing officer. The hearing officer may not be an employee or agent of the school district. The hearing is not subject to the provisions of chapter 120; however, the hearing must provide sufficient procedural protections to allow each petitioner an adequate and fair opportunity to be heard and present evidence to the hearing officer …
The bill is vague on how the hearing officer is to be selected. But a story at PBS’s Frontline provides a possible answer: A New Wave of Bills Takes Aim at Science in the Classroom. Florida Citizens’ Alliance is standing by to serve.
Haught says he’s worried that financially strapped districts, reluctant to pay for a hearing officer, may cave to objections, regardless of their merits.
But Flaugh, of Florida Citizens Alliance, waved off the concern, saying members of his group would volunteer to be hearing officers.
Flaugh and his Alliance wrote the bill and worked closely with its sponsors in the House and Senate. The bill doesn’t give any details about how this “unbiased and qualified hearing officer” would be chosen. Was that was on purpose? Does the Alliance want to be able to go to a school board with a complaint and then get themselves selected to be the hearing officers to judge the merits of their very own complaint? And will that complaint be about evolution? From the story:
The group supported legislation that also passed Friday to protect students and educators who wish to express their religious beliefs in school from discrimination. If signed by the governor, Flaugh said his group will use it in conjunction with the instructional materials bill to contest textbooks that demonstrate “bias toward Islam and seldom mention Christianity,” and promote those that push for a Christian view of the origins of life.
“Darwin’s theory is a theory, and the biblical view is a theory, and our kids should be taught both in a balanced way,” he said.
Kara Gross, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the bill will allow teachers, personnel and administrators to advance their religious beliefs in school. She said she expects the bill to be litigated on constitutional grounds.
That other bill about “religious beliefs” is the Religious Liberties Act, which is another bill that Florida Citizens for Science opposed. The bill, which at the time of this writing is awaiting the governor’s signature, requires the following:
A school district may not discriminate against a student, parent, or school personnel on the basis of a religious viewpoint or religious expression. A school district shall treat a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner that the school district treats a student’s voluntary expression of a secular viewpoint.
A student may express his or her religious beliefs in coursework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination. A student’s homework and classroom assignments shall be evaluated, regardless of their religious content, based on expected academic standards relating to the course curriculum and requirements. A student may not be penalized or rewarded based on the religious content of his or her work if the coursework, artwork, or other written or oral assignments require a student’s viewpoint to be expressed.
Florida Citizens for Science expressed concern that this could allow teachers or other school personnel to freely tell students about creationism in science class or any other class. And the organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State noted other problems:
Most troubling, these bills will harm students’ religious freedom. Both SB 436 and HB 303 would require teachers to permit religious expression in all school assignments without penalty, opening the door for students who so desire to use class time to proselytize and advance their own religious views on classmates. A student, for example, could use every assignment that includes a class presentation as an opportunity to convince any non-believers in the class that they need to accept Jesus to achieve salvation. Alternatively, students in science classes could try to turn every class discussion into a debate about evolution vs. creationism.
The religious liberties bill and the instructional materials bill could be exactly the tools activists need to pry open the classroom doors and let creationism in. They also could be effective in protests over literature and history and even math lessons, all of which the Alliance has loudly been complaining about for years.
And another important point is that according to the Florida Instructional Materials Adoption Schedule (link goes to a pdf), new science textbooks are due to be reviewed and adopted statewide in late 2017 to early 2018.