Squeaking By in Florida

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The Florida legislature failed to pass either of two forms of the Discovery Institute’s draft “academic freedom” bills, and adjourned Friday evening. We have until the legislative session next year to make sure that those in the legislature know exactly what the history and intent of bills like that are. But it doesn’t feel like a “win”; those of us who invested our time in advocating for good science education in Florida essentially got lucky this time.

Back in 2005, Florida hired Cheri Pierson Yecke as its K-12 Chancellor, the second highest post in the Department of Education. Yecke had gotten the boot in Minnesota after presiding over a contentious round of updating that state’s science standards. That event spurred me into action. I verified that there was no existing Citizens for Science group there and set about getting one organized. The resulting Florida Citizens for Science organization took on a big challenge, to organize and coordinate the effort to bring excellent science standards to Florida, without fear of saying “evolution”. The previous Sunshine Standards entirely omitted the word “evolution”, choosing instead euphemistic and flabby phrasing.

Florida Citizens for Science were helped along by a one-year delay in the science standards process. This gave the group time to organize and to invest in putting together a draft set of standards based on excellent examples from around the country.

The sustained level of effort paid off well, as earlier this year the Department of Education met to consider adopting the standards put together by a framing and writing committee, called “world-class” by various organizations and reviewers.

We knew that the Discovery Institute was working for the insertion of phrases they could misconstrue as admitting the tired old religious antievolution arguments they have been peddling for over a decade now, having inherited them from the “creation science” movement. They had a ringer in the framing and writing committees, an engineer by the name of Fred Cutting, who apparently served as an information conduit on developments in committee back to the Discovery Institute, as well as injecting Discovery Institute talking points into the committee proceedings. Cutting was known as recently as 2006 to be directly teaching “intelligent design” creationism (IDC) to students in Pinellas County public schools. In his new role, though, the IDC label for the arguments from the DI was downplayed, and the new misappropriation of “academic freedom” as a label for the very same arguments was consistently advocated by Cutting.

As the Board of Education came down toward a decision, it became apparent that the antievolution forces were getting coordinated and had an unseemly amount of influence behind the scenes. A dozen county school boards, primarily representing north Florida counties, passed very similar resolutions calling on the state Board of Education to reject the proposed standards. A special public forum was organized on extremely short notice, yet featured speakers from the major Florida partners in antievolution plus Dr. Robert V. Gentry, young-earth creationist and witness in the 1981 McLean v. Arkansas case.

There was a pervasive sense that the antievolution side had privileged access denied those on the pro-science side. The session for the decision by the Board of Education was opened at the last minute to public comment. The procedure stated was that the first ten people presenting themselves to speak for the proposed standards, and the first ten to speak against, would get three minutes each before the board. One of the speakers for the the proposed standards relates having stood outside in the blustery cold with other speakers for the standards awaiting the opening of the building, only to eventually be admitted and finding the ten speakers against the standards were already inside the building, warm and dry, and that those folks resolutely ignored the question of who admitted them to the supposedly locked building so early in the morning.

They not only had the advantage of early admission, they apparently had the ear of at least one of the board members. The consistent theme of the speakers against the proposed standards and that board member was to reject the proposed standards and adopt instead the “academic freedom” version of the standards. A modified version of the standards was submitted by Fred Cutting directly to the Board of Education, and it incorporated “academic freedom” language to permit teachers to bring in the DI’s arguments against evolution. The content of this altered version of the standards had not been made generally available; certainly the speakers for the proposed standards were not given access to it. Fortunately for Florida and the standards, Eric Smith, Florida’s Education Commissioner, advocated a compromise wherein some clunky phrasing of “scientific theory of” was prepended to concepts throughout the standards, including evolution. At the time, this effort appeared to be the work of antievolution advocates, but it turned out to severely discomfit the antievolutionists, since the Board of Education had the required majority ready to vote for the compromise, and essentially the effort the DI and its fellow travelers put into the “academic freedom” variant of the standards went for naught. The real choice turned out not to be between the proposed standards and the DI’s version, but rather between the proposed standards and the compromise version. The compromise version was adopted, and while its language was made clunky, ungainly, and doesn’t reflect standard usage in the scientific community, it at least doesn’t incorporate backdoors for antiscience and antievolution arguments to be injected into the curriculum.

Once the battle over the science standard adoptions was over, though, we found out that the Discovery Institute was far from done with Florida. It turned out that they were able to make connections with legislators who introduced versions of bills apparently closely modeled on draft legislation the DI provided on the web. The DI influence could be most clearly seen in how well the legislators involved stuck to the scripted DI talking points: that there was no “religion” mentioned in their bills, and that “intelligent design” was not mandated by their bills. These particular approaches don’t just happen; this was a well-coordinated and executed campaign. And it was here that Florida Citizens for Science was out-maneuvered by the carpetbaggers from Seattle. The focus of the work done by the volunteers in Florida Citizens for Science had been the content of the science standards. The shift in arena from the Department of Education to the legislature was not something that FCfS was prepared for. Combine that with the coordinated propaganda campaign using the “Expelled” movie pre-screening in Florida, complete with actor Ben Stein and full-time DI spokesperson Casey Luskin, and it was quite clear that what had gone before simply did not count in the new context of legislative action.

Certainly, Florida Citizens for Science continued to engage the issue in the new context, but it simply was not where FCfS could shine. The religious right could, and did, organize far larger numbers of people to write and phone their legislators on the matter. The DI and Florida antievolution advocates gained easy access to op-ed pages, and managed to hoodwink numbers of journalists unfamiliar with the long history of antievolution and its previous abuses of both “academic freedom” and “critical analysis”. When FCfS and other pro-science advocates hosted a press conference, the press managed to miss most of the points presented. In all the press reports I saw, half of the speakers in the press conference were never identified, and the majority of the reports only bothered to talk about one out of four of the speakers.

So the failure of the DI’s efforts in the Florida legislature this year came down ultimately to failures of communication between their advocates in the Senate and the House, and the unwillingness to coordinate early on a single form of a bill. In neither house was there enough opposition raised to stop the bills outright, though I’m confident that if the legislators could all have been briefed at good length on the issues, that could have been achieved in the Senate at least. Good science education had a narrow escape today in Florida.

This is a wake-up call, as I see it, for those in Florida who are concerned about science education. The antievolutionists came close to getting what they wanted from the Florida legislature; they’ll be back again next year, believe me. But as Pete noted in his earlier post, there are a number of steps that still need to be taken to implementing good science curricula, and those steps are vulnerable to attack by the antievolutionists as well. While we can breathe a sigh of relief today that things did not become much worse in Florida, the fact is that the fight is not over. There are a number of lessons to be learned, and much more work to be done. We need to be ready for the legislative assault next year. And we need to meet the challenges in the short term as well. If you haven’t gotten involved yet, recent events should by no means tell you that you may continue to let others bear the burden. They should be saying to you that it is high time that you did get involved. If you are in Florida, join Florida Citizens for Science. If you aren’t in Florida, get with the Citizens for Science group in your area. And joining NCSE is also a concrete step that you can take to help make sure that the antievolutionists continue their long losing streak.

I want to thank all the people who already volunteered with Florida Citizens for Science. You did make a difference. Joe Wolf, Joe Meert, Brandon Haught, Pete Dunkelberg, and many, many others helped get Florida to the point where an excellent science curriculum is not just possible, but likely to happen. You – and Florida’s students – had a bit of luck, too, and that should be taken as the gift it is.

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I don’t really have much today as I spent the entire weekend programming and working on a clients project. I did find two creationist videos at Hell’s Handmaiden that I would like to share with all of you. You may or may not have seen the... Read More

19 Comments

I’ve been covering the ‘Academic Freedom’ bills on wikipedia, and I’d have to disagree with you on a couple of points Wesley.

1) The DI script proved problematical for Ronda Storms on occasion, in that it didn’t contain a superficially credible answer on whether her bill would let ID & Creo anti-evo arguments in – and the media picked up on her stonewalling. Also the DI’s Casey Luskin managed to score an own-goal on the topic.

2) There was plenty of hostile coverage to the bills in the local Florida press. Marc Caputo at the Miami Herald stood out (but I’m sure that others were prominent in this too). If FCfS wasn’t able to get their message across, I have to wonder if they’re talking to the right people.

But I would agree that the failure to coordinate a consistent bill was the fatal flaw – and one that speaks to a rather glaring lack of political competence.

Notwithstanding any failings in the maneuvering department, it was great work on the part of Florida Citizens for Science (and you, I might add). Nor am I sure that the legislation died from failures of communication between their advocates in the Senate and the House. They both started with the same bill but the House changed its version and wouldn’t budge thereafter. For once I’m with the Discoveryless Institute on this one:

www.evolutionnews.org/2008/05/florida_house_republicans_kill.html

I think the whole thing was deliberately scuttled, probably at the urging of the corporate wing of the Republican Party, because it is more interested in attracting biomedical and other technology industries to Florida than it is in pandering to the fragile faith of those who can’t abide science. Indeed, modesty almost forbids my mentioning that I have been predicting this outcome for some time:

dododreams.blogspot.com/2008/04/legislative-ethics.html

By next year the Roveian Panic the Faithful strategists will have to come up with new some threat to God and Country to keep things fresh and I suspect there will be much less fervor for “academic freedom” bills. But that might be its own danger, allowing them to “fly under the radar.” However, given Florida Citizens for Science’s good work, I’m not too worried.

Again, congratulations!

I don’t think that we are in much disagreement, Hrafn. Ronda Storms stuck to the DI script as I stated; I never claimed that the DI script was coherent. Nor does the fact that hostile press coverage existed negate the fact that the DI and its fellow travelers seemed to get an entirely disproportionate amount of access to op-ed opportunities, and the existence of clued-in reporters also does not negate the frequency with which we saw standard he-said-she-said faux journalism on the topic.

There is, though, a point that I will disagree upon: I didn’t say that FCfS was unable to get their message out to the press in general; I was remarking on the specific April 14th press conference in Tallahassee. Neither Caputo nor Ron Matus (St. Pete Times) was present there, else I’m sure that there would have been at least a couple of informative articles resulting.

Dr. Elsberry, the press packet you put together was just the right thing to do. Reporters like it when they are spoon fed information. So don’t be too distraught about the lack of reporters.

The information made it’s rounds :-)

I think the script’s problem wasn’t so much that it wasn’t coherent (who expects consistency from a politician after all), but that it wasn’t comprehensive, and specifically failed to provide her with adequate talking points on an issue that Luskin’s own-goal had already highlighted.

I didn’t see much in the way of pro-bill op-eds, but then I’ve been working from Google News, which may not have included them.

I agree with Stacy that spoon-feeding is the way to go. Most journos will be as lazy as most other working stiffs and will favour articles that they can write with a minimum of effort.

I must say that Marc Caputo went out of his way to get a handle on the situation. (Yay) He actually called me at my home at the beginning of this controversy. He got my name and number off of an e mail that I sent to the BoE

It was pretty good, I must say :-)

At that time, he had never even heard of the DI or ID.

John Pieret -

I think the whole thing was deliberately scuttled, probably at the urging of the corporate wing of the Republican Party, because it is more interested in attracting biomedical and other technology industries to Florida than it is in pandering to the fragile faith of those who can’t abide science.

I’m no Republican, but if this is true, it would seem that the “corporate wing of the Republican Party” is capable of sometimes behaving in a rational way, for a rational motivation.

It has become most verboten to mention what I am going to say next on PT, and I wouldn’t be surprised if my post is frog-marched to the bathroom wall, or even ejected into barren cyberspace, because I say it, but…

If Floridians hadn’t voted for so many right wing Republicans in the first place, the bill wouldn’t have even come this close to passage.

The logical rebuttal to this, which would instantly cause me to publicly retract my statement, would be to show that there was as many Democrat supporters for anti-evolution legislation, as Republican supporters, within the Florida legislature.

Bathroom wall, here I come.

Harold,

No push to the bathroom wall from me.

The House vote was almost exclusively along party lines. There was more dissent in the Senate; the vote was 21-17 with four Republicans, including Senate Majority Whip Paula Dockery, voting against. If three senators had voted differently the bill would have died.

There’s a coincidence there… I grew up as an across-the-street neighbor of C.C. “Doc” Dockery, Paula Dockery’s husband. Small, small world.

Re the republican revolt: I think one other issue for Republicans in the house was that two leaders were leaving - one retiring (Pickens) who was the education chair and has a wife who is a teacher. The amendment that diverged so much from the house was authored by Pickens and Hays. The other (Rubio) leaving because of term limits and who I think probably wants to be governor or senator and did not want another cat fight over this issue on the last day, actually last hours, he was speaker of the house. Finally we have a governor who wants to be VP running mate to McCain and who was in the gallery watching the house debate this week on this bill. Imagine the uproar if it had passed and also realize that Crist is a Realist especially about economics and probably does not want to see “Floriduh” be made fun of Again on his watch. So I also think DI was right and it is a good sign that the realists may revolt against DI as it strains the credulity of the press and finds itself represented by extreme and divisive figures like Rhonda Storms and obviously mentally challenged ones like Hays.

Hrafn, what do you see in Louisiana?

A little housekeeping swept trolling and metatalk over to the Bathroom Wall.

The proponents of these Florida bills asserted that the bills would promote academic freedom but the real effect of the bills would have been to give teachers a license to commit academic fraud.

That’s why I called them the “academic irresponsibility” bills.

As these type of bills seem to be making their march through “friendly” states of the midwest and the bible belt, I keep a watch over my residence state of Virginia. Fortunately we have had two governors lately that most likely would not pander to the likes of the Disco Institute and/or the religious right, Pat Robertson not withstanding in VA Beach. I am just counting myself lucky for that but my watch remains in effect for any indication of the now all so well known language to disguise Creationism into the schools. Keep up the good work. It is by efforts like yours that we take example on what to watch for and how to combat the attempts to introduce bad science and worst religion into our schools.

Stacy S. said: Dr. Elsberry, the press packet you put together was just the right thing to do. Reporters like it when they are spoon fed information. So don’t be too distraught about the lack of reporters.

The information made it’s rounds :-)

How can I get my hands on one of those press packets? Is it general enough to apply to different states? I’d like to have something available in case this pops up in Illinois.

I think Stacy may have been referring to my earlier post, an open letter on learning from history.

The ACLU of Florida had a real press packet for the reporters. I’ll check into whether I can get the documents.

Sorry for any confusion. :-)

I have been dreaming to come to Florida for a long time

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This page contains a single entry by Wesley R. Elsberry published on May 3, 2008 6:50 AM.

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