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Coming Soon to Florida: More Challenges for Districts' Science Curricula?

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Newly elected Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has appointed the members of his transition team for education—and on it are two people linked to efforts to weaken the teaching of evolution and climate change, among other topics. 

One of them, Keith Flaugh, is the managing director of the Florida Citizens Alliance, a local advocacy organization which supports "individual rights." In Collier County, Flaugh submitted dozens of objections to science textbooks, alongside three other residents also affiliated with the FCA.

"Man-made global warming [is] presented as fact when it is still very much a theory!" he wrote in one of the challenges. In another: "Books that treat evolution as a proven science are discriminating and bully children and families against their religious beliefs." 

The petitions were made under a 2017 law that greatly expanded the ability of Florida residents to challenge and potentially remove textbooks and other teaching materials that districts adopt. Previously, such challenges were limited to parents of school-age children; now, any resident can make them. What's more, an independent hearing officer has to hear and weigh in on the challenge before school boards make a final call on the materials.

Accompanying Flaugh on DeSantis' transition team is Erika Donalds, the wife of the lawmaker who sponsored the curriculum-challenge law. Donalds also previously served on the Collier County school board, where she voted in favor of removing the materials Flaugh and others challenged in that county. 

The First Wave

This summer, Education Week sent open-records requests to all 67 Florida counties to determine the scope of challenges in the 2017-18 school year, the first in which the new curriculum-challenge policy went into place. Of the counties that responded, seven had challenges, four of those challenges went to hearing officers, and three of them dealt with evolution and climate change. (Five counties still have not responded to our requests.)

The first story I wrote based on these records dealt not with science, but with history textbooks. And it's not hard to see why those textbooks can be controversial. History is by its nature an interpretive discipline, one that evolves as scholars discover and contextualize new archival information. And people's dispositions toward history are intimately shaped by the communities in which they're raised. (In fact, as I argue in a companion story, how we teach history may be one of the reasons why we're so civically divided these days.)

In theory, though, climate change, evolutionary science, and indeed all of science content shouldn't face these problems: They are based on empirical study and verification. There is virtually no scientific disagreement that humans evolved and that evolution is responsible for the Earth's diverse biology; similarly, few scientists dispute humans' contributions to the warming of the earth. Nevertheless, ideological debates on these topics are rife. For nearly 100 years, the debate over evolution has been one of the most contentious in K-12 education. Climate change, though a newer issue, is right behind it. 

The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that creationism cannot be taught in schools because it violates the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment of the Constitution. The most recent ruling was in 2005's Kitzmiller v. Dover, which dismissed "intelligent design"—the idea that some biological structures are so complex they must have had some kind of creator behind them—as warmed-up creationism. 

More Challenges Ahead?

Of course, it is not clear yet what DeSantis, Flaugh, or Donalds have in mind specifically for education. But at the very least, the dots are lining up here for a wave of new challenges. As I reported in my earlier story on the FCA, what separates it from other anti-evolution efforts is that these activists are working through the grassroots and training local activists in many counties. It's not a stretch to assume that, with Flaugh and Donalds in a more powerful state role, people who share their views will feel emboldened to express them locally. 

It's possible that they will seek changes to the state textbook-adoption process, too; the FCA, in fact, backed a second bill that would have altered it, but that bill got stuck after legislators focused all their attention on school safety following the Parkland tragedy in February. 

DeSantis has also promised a review of the state's curriculum standards, and one of his campaign pitches was to "stop [the] common core." The state's science standards, last revised in 2008, are also due for a revision. (Elsewhere in the United States, evolution and climate-change battles sprung up over standards revisions in New Mexico, Arizona, and Idaho in just the past two years.)

Here's a summary of the evolution and climate challenges in Florida and on the outcome of the challenges:

Collier County: Four residents submitted more than 250 individual objections to 18 science textbooks, primarily on how they presented evolution, the weather, and climate change. A hearing officer established the parameters for a special school board meeting and vote but did not issue a recommendation. On a 3-2 vote, the school board upheld the textbooks.  

Martin CountyFive residents challenged two of the district's science textbooks, and requested that the district "develop curriculum that presents an objective case both for and against evolution." After the hearing, the hearing officer compared these complaints to the arguments in the 2005 Dover case. He recommended that the county reject the challenges. On a 3-2 vote, the school board voted to retain the books.

Nassau County: A single resident challenged three textbooks arguing that "bacteria to man evolution" is not supported by science and that the material was "inflammatory to every Christian." It sought to have the district place disclaimers on the books. A hearing officer oversaw the presentation of evidence at the hearing, but did not issue a recommendation. The district's chief legal officer warned against a potential lawsuit if the books were thrown out, and the board voted to keep the materials in a 5-0 vote.

What's interesting is that in two of these cases, petitioners came within one vote of winning their challenges. (It's not clear what districts would have done if these challenges had succeeded. Florida's science standards currently do require the teaching of evolution.) 

Science advocates in the state are worried.

Brandon Haught, the communication director of Florida Citizens for Science, a group that has closely tracked the local challenges, wrote on the group's blog that he's particularly concerned about what happens if DeSantis prioritizes a review of the state's science standards.

"If it is indeed a 'complete review' then I have no doubt that evolution and climate change will be heavily scrutinized in the science standards, especially if Flaugh and Donalds have any role," he wrote. "Strap in. The next few years are going to be a wild ride."

EPE Librarian Maya Riser-Kositsky provided research assistance.
Image: Getty

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