Sunshine State dark age

Liam Julian

The evolution debate in Florida grows tiresome, and not only because Ben Stein--he of somnolent monotone--is now involved, but because it keeps reiterating the same, tired points albeit in different ways.

Stein trotted to Tallahassee earlier this month to offer a preview of his forthcoming documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which chronicles the supposed classroom suppression by "Big Science" of any theory that competes with evolution. Lawmakers were allowed to see the movie; the press and public were not. 

Stein was also hanging around the Capitol to promote the "Academic Freedom Act," sponsored by Republican Sen. Ronda Storms and Rep. Alan Hays. The bill, which yesterday passed a Senate committee, would allow teachers the right "to objectively present scientific information relevant to the full range of scientific views" of evolution. Stein said at a news conference, "This bill is not about teaching intelligent design. It's about freedom of speech."

Casey Luskin--who works for the Discovery Institute, which supports intelligent design--echoed Stein's sentiments and said the bill would protect only teachers who choose to educate students about scientific objections to evolution. Luskin, however, believes that intelligent design is science.

There they go again. If this bill passes, of course, the tedious debate will revive: Is intelligent design science or isn't it? Let's avoid this exhausted topic for a moment, though, and examine other reasons why making the "Academic Freedom Act" a law is a lousy idea for Florida's students and schools.

Start with the assertion that the bill protects "freedom of speech." Teachers are already free to say whatever they please to a roomful of 8-year-olds, just as I'm free to say whatever I please around my office. If I casually observe that my boss is a philistine afflicted by halitosis, or if a Florida history instructor channels Shakespeare and calls his school's principal a "lump of foul deformity," neither of us will wind up in a dark, damp dungeon. We will both, however, almost surely be fired (although public-school teachers are protected by powerful unions, so perhaps the history instructor keeps his job while I lose mine).

What Stein really meant to say is that the bill insulates teachers from being held accountable for their speech. One wonders whether Florida's citizens really desire that public-school teachers have that type of protection, one to which few private-sector workers are entitled (and for good reason).

The "Academic Freedom Act" is an insult and fetter to principals, who will see their autonomy over school operations and personnel further diluted if the bill becomes law. They would have no way to discipline teachers who are, say, presenting to students inaccurate scientific information ("who says it's inaccurate?") or deviating from the state's academic standards. Principals are accountable to district and state for the academic performance of their students, yet here the state is weighing a measure that will severely hamper principals' authority. Accountability without autonomy is a recipe for failure.

Here's another disturbing piece of the "Academic Freedom Act": students may not be penalized in any way for subscribing "to a particular position or view regarding biological or chemical evolution." So when little Johnny receives an "F" for an essay in which he has proclaimed the earth was created in a week, little Johnny's teacher better watch out--the lawyers are coming.

Legislators should refrain from this sort of curricular micromanaging because it just makes everything worse. The "Academic Freedom Act" is thoroughly flawed and deserves to be dismissed.

"Florida Evolution Foes Try a Fresh Tactic," by Sean Cavanagh, Education Week, March 26, 2008

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