Florida residents could soon get the power to alter science classes

Education bills would allow people who live in the state to review and recommend instructional materials to be used in schools.

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Florida Senator Tom Lee

Florida Senator Tom Lee co-sponsored a bill that would let state residents have a say in what instructors teach their students.Credit: Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times/ZUMA

Policymakers in the United States are pushing to give the public more power to influence what educators teach students. Last week, Florida’s legislature started considering two related bills that, if enacted, would let residents recommend which instructional materials teachers in their school district use in their classrooms.

The bills build on a law enacted in June 2017, which enables any Florida resident to challenge the textbooks and other educational tools used in their district as being biased or inaccurate. In the five months after the state's governor approved the law, residents filed at least seven complaints, including two that challenge the teaching of evolution and human-driven climate change, according to the Associated Press.

But the bills approved this month by the education committees in the state's Senate and House of Representatives go a step further, because they would allow the public to review educational materials used in class and to suggest alternatives. “They would make it easier for creationists, climate-change deniers and — who knows — flat-Earthers to pester their local school boards about their hobbyhorses,” says Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California. The final decision on whether to follow the recommendations still rests with the school boards.

Roundabout route

Attempts to influence what students learn typically tend to tackle the issue head-on, with measures aimed at changing state education standards. Last year, Idaho’s legislature scrapped all references to human-driven global warming from the state’s science standards. And an Iowa bill introduced on 12 February would do something similar by removing guidelines to teach evolution and the effects of human activity on climate (see 'Targeting education').

Source: National Center for Science Education

Florida’s instructional-materials bills could alter classroom content in a less direct way. Allowing tax-payers to have a say in what goes on in public schools seems innocuous, says Brandon Haught, who teaches environmental science at a secondary school in Orange City, Florida. In reality, the bills, together with last year’s law, expose schools to activists that oppose the teaching of topics such as evolution and global warming, he says.

What’s more, the bills and the law use language that makes it easier for individuals to target such topics, Branch says. The documents state that educational materials should be “balanced” and “noninflammatory”, but they don’t specify who decides whether something is inflammatory, he says. “It’s a real worry that those labels will be slapped onto any kind of material that people oppose.”

State Representative Byron Donalds (Republican), who sponsored last year’s law and this year’s bill in the House, says it’s important that school boards consider different viewpoints. “You can debate on things and draw your own conclusions,” Donalds says.

The bills must still be voted on by the full House and Senate, but Branch says that they have a good chance of becoming law in Florida.

Finding a balance

They could eventually be joined by another pair of bills that have been introduced in the state’s House and Senate education committees. These measures would allow local school districts to use alternative education standards as long as they are equivalent to or “more rigorous” than the state ones. “But we're not told how to measure rigour,” Branch says.

These bills would also require “controversial theories and concepts” in science to be taught in a “factual, objective and balanced manner”. This language can be problematic, Branch says. “When we teach that the Earth is round, are we imbalanced if we don't teach that the Earth is flat?”

If enacted into law, the instructional-materials and alternative-education standards bills would enable special-interest groups to promote their own agendas, potentially overriding experts who write science curricula and recommend educational tools based on scientific evidence, says Leah Qusba, deputy director of the Alliance for Climate Education in Boulder, Colorado. “That’s a whole can of worms that you're opening.”

Nature 555, 15 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-02434-y

Updates & Corrections

  • Update 26 February 2018: On 23 February, revised education standards for Idaho classes that include guidelines on how to teach global warming went into effect.

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