Barbara Forrest

Louisiana is at or near the bottom of quite a few lists, a fact that is not news to anyone who lives here and cares about the future of the Pelican State. Gov. Bobby Jindal himself announces on his “Workforce Development” website that Louisiana is #49 —second from the bottom — with respect to schoolchildren’s educational success and economic prospects as adults:

Student achievement and preparation for the workforce:  In a 2007 national Chance-for-Success Index, Louisiana ranks #49 in the nation based on 13 indicators that highlight whether young children get off to a good start, succeed in elementary and secondary school, and hit crucial educational and economic benchmarks as adults.

But things are looking up — as of March 22, 2009, Louisiana is now actually at the top of a list. The only problem is that it is a list on which the Louisiana legislature and the governor should be ashamed to have placed us.

Among the states in which the out-of-state creationist think thank, the Discovery Institute (DI), has been hawking its “academic freedom” legislation for the last several years, Louisiana enjoys the distinction of so far being the first and only state in which one of these bills has become law.  On June 25, 2008, Bobby Jindal signed SB 733 into law as Act 473, the Louisiana “Science Education” Act (LSEA). So not only are we at the top of the list, we are presently the only state on it! As a result, Louisiana is now being boycotted by a national scientific society, the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, which had held national meetings in New Orleans in 1976, 1987, and 2004. Why should a scientific society come to a state that attacks both its discipline and the way it is taught? Instead, SICB will hold its 2011 meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the State Board of Education issued a strong, unanimous statement in 2005 supporting the teaching of evolution in public schools when a Utah legislator threatened to introduce an “academic freedom” bill.

In 2009, the Discovery Institute, not content with having successfully targeted Louisiana, is again coordinating the introduction of their creationist “academic freedom” bills in legislatures around the country. So far this year, variations of DI’s “Model Academic Freedom Statute on Evolution” have been introduced in seven states:  Oklahoma, Iowa, New Mexico, Alabama, Missouri, Florida, and Texas. However, the Oklahoma, Iowa, and New Mexico bills are now dead. Not only are they dead, they never even made it out of committee. Contrast that with the fact that both the Louisiana Senate and House Education Committees passed the LSEA out of committee without a single dissenting vote, and during the floor votes in both houses of the legislature, only three members of the House of Representatives voted against it. The measure passed by a vote of 94-3 in the House and 35-0 in the Senate.

Laissez bon temps rouler, indeed. The bon temps rolled right over the distinguished Louisiana scientists and dedicated science teachers who appealed to legislators last year to kill the LSEA and then to the governor to veto it. The Discovery Institute’s partner in this effort was the Louisiana Family Forum, a Focus on the Family affiliate whose mission is “to persuasively present biblical principles in the centers of influence” — the centers of influence being the Louisiana legislature, which does the LFF’s bidding with respect to a lengthening roster of cultural wedge issues, and Gov. Bobby Jindal, its most essential ally in implementing its regressive public policy agenda. (Watch LFF’s executive director, Rev. Gene Mills, explaining his agenda to a Focus on the Family interviewer.)

In the wake of its success in getting the LSEA passed in 2008, the LFF continues to promote creationism in the guise of “critical thinking” on its new website. The organization is promoting textbook addendums written by long-time Baton Rouge creationist Charles Voss. It is also promoting a Discovery Institute DVD entitled Investigating Evolution, which is intended for teachers to use with one of DI’s creationist books, Icons of Evolution. (See the National Center for Science Education’s critique of Icons.)

Readers may wonder how Oklahoma, Iowa, and New Mexico have kept themselves off such an undistinguished list as the one Louisiana is on. Part of the answer is that their legislators and governors are (1) not as susceptible to pressure from the Religious Right as are public officials in Louisiana and (2) more respectful of the professional expertise of their own scientists and educators who have lobbied them to vote against creationist legislation. Public officials in Oklahoma, Iowa, and New Mexico apparently care more about the educational and economic well-being of their citizens than about the divisive social agenda of a well-organized minority of zealots whose aim is to enact their personal religious preferences as public policy. But the fundamentally most important reason is that concerned constituents in their states have mounted well-organized efforts to defend the teaching of science in their public schools. These citizens have spoken out collectively and persuasively both to the public and to elected officials, and they have sustained these efforts over a period of years.

Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education (OESE) launched a major effort to block passage of Senate Bill 320, the “Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act.” (See OESE’s distinguished board of governors.) OESE has also joined the Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science in order to enhance their ability to carry out their mission.

In Iowa, over 200 university scientists signed a public statement calling on the Iowa legislature to  reject HF 183, “The Evolution Academic Freedom Act.” Their statement clearly helped: the bill died in the Iowa House of Representatives on March 13. It is notable — not to mention sad and embarrassing — that Louisiana was invoked as an example that Iowans should not follow:

Although the bill was given little chance of passing from the start, the petition helped to inform legislators and the public of the depth of resistance to such a bill within the academic and scientific community. Iowa faculty wanted to nip this bill in the bud before we had another Louisiana on our hands. (emphasis added) (Prof. Hector Avalos, Iowa State University, Panda’s Thumb, March 13, 2009)

New Mexico is fortunate to have a strong pro-science group, New Mexicans for Science and Reason, which has helped fight off multiple attacks on its science curriculum at both the state and local levels over the last decade. They fought off SB 433 this year and a similar bill in 2007.

Texas scientists have formed the “21st Century Science Coalition” to fend off the current attack on the state science standards; so far, 680 scientists in Texas universities, along with 870 other Texas scientists, have signed the “Scientists for a Responsible Curriculum in Texas Public Schools” statement. Along with Texas Citizens for Science and the Texas Freedom Network, these scientists are currently mounting a strong effort to protect their science standards, on which the Texas Board of Education will vote on March 25. (See the TFN page about this upcoming vote. ) Texans must now also combat the creationist HB 4224, which will permit the teaching of bogus “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution in public schools. (See NCSE’s report on Texas.)

At this point, the prospects of the Texas, Missouri, Florida, and Alabama bills are uncertain. Let’s hope that the public officials in these states have better judgment than the ones whom Louisiana voters have trusted with our children’s future.

In the meantime, nothing is more sorely needed in Louisiana than a similarly well-organized, long-term effort launched from multiple directions: by the scientific community, the civil liberties community, the mainstream religious community, and the education community. If Louisiana citizens don’t take the initiative to rescue public school science education from the grip of the Louisiana Family Forum and the Discovery Institute, we can count on remaining at the top of the list and the bottom of the ladder.  Laissez bon temps rouler.