Squeaking By in Florida

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.