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South Dakota's Alternative Science Bill Voted Down While Other States Are Considering Similar Measures

The South Dakota House Education committee defeated a bill that would have allowed science teachers the opportunity to advance alternative theories challenging evolution and global warming.

The Argus Leader reported that those testifying on behalf of the bill included "Republican lawmakers, anti-Common Core groups, conservative advocacy groups and concerned parents." The makeup of this coalition reveals a stark partisan divide over science education. Jeff Monroe, a Republican State Senator and the bill's sponsor, defended the measure, saying its intention was to provide "additional latitude for teachers to explain potential flaws in theories and . . . to provide alternate theories without fear of retribution," according to the paper.

However, Glenn Branch, the Deputy Director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a non-profit organization that protects the teaching of global warming and evolution, argues that "state science standards and state and local policies already provide an appropriate degree of freedom to science teachers." He also expressed concern that the "latitude" afforded by the bill "would have removed accountability by making it impossible for school boards and administrators to restrain rogue teachers."

Senate Bill 55 states that "[n]o teacher may be prohibited from helping students understand, analyze, critique, or review in an objective scientific manner the strengths and weaknesses of scientific information presented in courses being taught which are aligned with the content standards." Critics contend that the wording of the bill is intentionally ambiguous. Nicholas Matzke describes measures of this ilk as "stealth creationist bills." In an article in Science Magazine, Matzke writes that after the Kitzmiller v. Dover decision, in which a U.S. District Court ruled that the teaching of intelligent design in public schools was unconstitutional, creationist education policy supporters adopted a new tactic, introducing "legislation that avoids mentioning creationism in any of its varieties but advances creationist antievolutionism." According to Matzke, "[l]egal challenges seem to have been dissuaded by strategic vagueness in avoiding mention of the bills’ religious motivations and by only permitting, rather than requiring, disparagement of evolution."

The language of SB 55 seemingly suggests that teachers are being forced to suppress information that would call into question accepted scientific laws and theories. However, the bill's ambiguous language means that if a teacher elected to present countervailing information to his/her class, that information would not necessarily need to be provable, credible, and/or rigorously tested.

One of the bill's co-sponsors Chip Campbell labeled SB 55 as an "academic freedom bill," arguing that the measure safeguards intellectual expression even if those expressions and claims are not demonstrable or scientifically verifiable. Opponents like Glenn Branch worry that these measures would undermine the integrity of science education and involve districts in unnecessary legal entanglements. "Right now, South Dakota parents who reject evolution or deny climate change or think . . . that the earth is flat might ask their children's teachers to teach their views and be met with, ‘Sorry, it's not in the state standards or the district curriculum.’ But SB 55, if enacted, would remove that (perfectly appropriate) defense to such pressure. Additionally, of course, teachers who invoked the law to teach bad science or non-science could embroil themselves and their districts in needless, divisive, and potentially expensive controversy," he said.

The controversy isn't going away anytime soon as evidenced by the passage of a similar bill in Indiana last week. Oklahoma’s and Texas’s versions of the bill are still in their respective House committees.


Richard Conklin, Education World Editor

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