Virginia science teachers are opposing a bill in the General Assembly they say would open classroom doors to lessons challenging evolution, global warming and other mainstream scientific views.
The bill, sponsored by Del. Richard P. Bell (R-Staunton), would direct school systems to encourage students “to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about scientific controversies in science classes.”
It says teachers should not be prohibited from helping students “understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.”
The bill states that its provisions are not intended to promote or discriminate against any religion, nor does it single out scientific “controversies.” But Bell said in an interview Wednesday that evolution and climate change “might fall into that category.”
“It’s about protecting the flow of information and protecting the teacher from any reprisals that might come up if a child goes home and says, ‘We talked about Topic X in class today,’ and the parents have a reaction to it because that might not be a shared perspective,” Bell said.
Such bills are part of a wave of so-called Academic Freedom legislation promoted across the country by proponents of biblical creationism or intelligent design, the theory that life in all of its complexity cannot not be explained without a higher, intelligent cause.
A bill similar to Bell’s that passed in Tennessee in 2012 highlighted biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning as among the controversial topics that students should explore in public schools.
Historic efforts to ban the instruction of evolution in public schools or teach biblical creationism have been struck down by the Supreme Court.
Bell is chairman of the House elementary and secondary education subcommittee, which is scheduled to consider the bill Thursday. He is also an appointed member of the Opportunity Educational Institution Board, a state board charged with taking over the state’s most chronically troubled schools.
Opponents say such bills are trying to insert controversy into scientific topics that have already been agreed upon by an overwhelming majority of scientists and scientific associations.
The bills appeal to “lofty secular ideals of openness and inquiry,” said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education. But, he said, “giving teachers this license will encourage them to use it, and no one will know what is going on.”
Juanita Jo Matkins, past president of the Virginia Association of Science Teachers, said teachers already have the freedom to teach about scientific debates that are based on scientific evidence.
“The word ‘opinion’ and ‘belief’ are both used in this bill,” she said. “If opinions and beliefs are to be used in classrooms, it undermines what science is.”
The science teachers group opposes the bill. Matkins said the measure could undermine the teaching of the important theory of evolution, and she called it unnecessary.
The introduction to Virginia’s Standards of Learning for science states that students should be able to “make informed decisions regarding contemporary issues,” taking into account such things as scientific data and the use of scientific reasoning and logic.
Nearly every standard in every class from kindergarten through high school also starts with the phrase, “students will investigate and understand.”
“My point there is that the Virginia SOLs already have provisions to encourage students to explore scientific questions,” Matkins said. “That is part and parcel of every standard.”
A policy statement by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which funds intelligent design research and has developed model Academic Freedom legislation, says that efforts to mandate instruction of intelligent design only serve to “politicize the theory.” The group instead seeks to expand teaching of evolution to include current debates about “unresolved issues” within the theory.
“Evolution should be taught as a scientific theory that is open to critical scrutiny, not as a sacred dogma that can’t be questioned,” according to the statement.
The institute says three states have adopted laws that protect the rights of teachers or students to debate the scientific underpinnings of evolution or other theories, as Bell’s bill would do.
“What is the crime of allowing a teacher in an objective manner to talk about” such debates, asked John West, vice president of the Discovery Institute. If that’s not allowed, he said, “you are turning science into some kind of propaganda class where all you promote is dogma.”