Earth & Conservation

Educators Fear DeVos Appointment Will Encourage State Anti-Science Laws

A bill working its way through the South Dakota legislature could allow teachers to question the scientific certainty of evolution and anthropogenic climate change — or promote white supremacy.

The U.S. Senate confirmed on Tuesday President Trump's nomination of Betsy DeVos to head the Department of Education, but only after Vice President Mike Pence stepped in to break a tie vote over her controversial appointment. It was the first time in U.S. history that a vice president, who also serves as President of the Senate, cast a deciding vote in a Cabinet nomination.

DeVos has been widely criticized for her lack of experience, support for school vouchers and ties to conservative religious groups. Her public record indicates that she does not back a clear separation of church and state - which has science educators worried that her appointment might fuel anti-science sentiment in public schools and legislative chambers around the country.

They fear people like South Dakota state Senator Jeff Monroe.

Monroe, a Republican, hopes 2017 might be the year the state finally passes his bill on science education.

The bill reads:

No 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 established pursuant to § 13-3-48.

Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, fears that dissident teachers might use the bill to open debates in the classroom on issues that the majority of the scientific community has agreed are no longer contested, such as evolution or climate change.

"Science books say there is no scientific evidence for the intellectual inferiority of any ethnic group, for example, but suppose you have a teacher who wants to help their class understand the strengths and weaknesses of this argument," said Branch. "This [legislation] could empower a racist teacher to bring such material into the classroom, and authorities would be powerless against it."

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The NCSE, National Association of Biology Teachers, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, the National Science Teachers Association, and the American Institute of Biological Sciences have denounced Monroe's bill.

Local opposition to the legislation includes the South Dakota Department of Education, South Dakota Education Association, the School Administrators of South Dakota and the Associated School Boards of South Dakota.

Mark Sweeney, a professor of earth sciences at the University of South Dakota, wrote an op-ed in the Argus Leader of Sioux Falls, warning that the bill would "dumb down science education."

"Spreading the false idea that evolution or climate change is scientifically controversial does not reflect the reality among scientists," Sweeney wrote, "and teaching the supposed 'controversy' does no one any good other than to breed unnecessary and ill-informed skepticism."

Monroe has introduced a version of his bill in four previous years. The state Senate passed the latest version on January 25 on a 23-12 vote. It is slated for debate in the House on February 13.

Senator Monroe said in an email statement that he disagrees that his bill is anti-science or intended to embolden a religious agenda in the classroom. He said, "The misinformation is rampant."

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Legislatures in Indiana, Oklahoma, and Texas are considering similar bills. Louisiana passed a version in 2008 and Tennessee became the second state to do so in 2012. Seventy such bills have been introduced in the last 13 years, according to NCSE.

While, state legislatures and departments of education make decisions on school curriculums, not the federal government, science educators worry that the Trump administration could serve to embolden those who want to question science that doesn't align with their views.

While courts have ruled that the teaching of creationism - or "intelligent design" - in public schools violates the First Amendment, vaguely worded "academic freedom" might open the door to religious theories that cast doubt on scientific consensus. In her confirmation hearing earlier this month, DeVos said she supported teaching that "allows students to exercise critical thinking," which Branch described as a "catchphrase beloved by creationists and climate change deniers."

"DeVos moves in circles where we find a lot of evolution and climate change denial," he said. "The worry is that with science-denial being so prominent, science deniers will be emboldened to act locally, having new confidence to push new legislation and bad policies at the local level."

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