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By Barbara Forrest

Sometimes the word “irony” is insufficient as a response to the actual nature of events. For some situations, “irony” is just too tepid. One finds that such is the case upon reading the article entitled “Louisiana Science Education Strategy Under Development” in the Business section of the July 15, 2012, New Orleans Times-Picayune. The article opens this way:

After recognizing a need for more students and graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, drafted Senate Resolution 120. The resolution asks Louisiana’s top higher education board, the Board of Regents, to develop a strategy to attract and keep students in those degree fields to supply companies in New Orleans with a larger, more capable work force. 

Sen. Conrad Appel, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, is concerned about the state of science education in Louisiana. Although this is one of those cases in which “irony” sounds a bit weak, let’s just go ahead and say that his concern — while most welcome — is also most ironic. Read on to find out why.

Senator Appel’s Concern for Louisiana Science Education

According to the Times-Picayune article, Sen. Appel wants more of Louisiana’s young people to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in our universities and to stay in the state to make their careers.

‘It’s clearly important that our best and brightest stay in Louisiana,’ Appel said. ‘We have to be in a position to compete on a world basis. These are the jobs for the future.’

That’s very nice. We certainly agree.

So, shortly before the 2012 legislative session ended, Sen. Appel introduced Senate Resolution 120 [pdf]. SR 120, which sped right through the legislative process, “urge[s] and request[s] the Board of Regents [the chief higher education governing board in Louisiana] to develop a strategy to attract more students to, and graduate more students from, the state’s colleges and universities in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM).” Who could argue with that? That’s a great idea.

Sen. Appel is impressed by the importance of science education to the future of America, which he believes is threatened by the fact that “the United States produces fewer STEM graduates relative to other economically developed countries.” In his resolution, he earnestly observes that

as we moved into the 21st century . . . it became clear that our economic preeminence was threatened as other countries became more educated and started gaining economic ground.

In keeping with this concern, his resolution directs the Board of Regents to “submit a written report of its findings and recommendations to the Senate Committee on Education not later than March 1, 2013.” What a timely deadline! That will be only a few weeks before the next legislative session begins at noon, Monday, April 8, 2013 [pdf] — which will also be shortly before Zack Kopplin plans to make his third attempt to get the creationist Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA) repealed.

How fortunate! The spirit of the Enlightenment and concern for science education will flow like the Mighty Mississippi through the halls of the State Capitol that the dictator Huey Long once tyrannized! And, as the saying goes, the third time is the charm! We’re bound to get the LSEA repealed next year with a champion of science education at the helm of the Senate Education Committee! (The chair last year was the senator who actually sponsored the bill.)

Here’s Where the Irony Starts

But wait. . . there’s a hitch — of course. In Louisiana, nothing that makes rational sense is that easy. “So, what is the hitch?,” you ask. Well, the hitch — and this is where the irony emerges — is that last year, 2011, when Senator Karen Carter Peterson introduced SB 70, the first bill to repeal the LSEA, Sen. Appel voted to defer the bill rather than allow it out of committee. The Senate Education Committee’s 5-1 vote to defer the bill effectively killed it. So let it be noted that in 2011 Sen. Appel voted against repealing the LSEA.

As of this year, 2012, when Sen. Peterson introduced a second repeal bill, SB 374, Sen. Appel had actually become the committee chair. This time, rather than vote against the bill, he exercised his prerogative as chair and did not vote at all. But he sounded skeptical of the need for repeal.

Education Committee Chairman Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, questioned whether any complaints had ever been filed about creationism being taught in schools since the law was passed. An education department official said no complaint has ever been lodged.

Hearing that no complaints had been filed, Sen. Appel was apparently reassured that the bill has done no damage. This must explain why he sat out the vote to repeal the LSEA — or, more accurately, to let the bill go to the Senate floor for a vote. Appel apparently doesn’t know that in 2010, the Livingston Parish School Board made very loud noises about explicitly using the LSEA to add “creationism” to public school science classes. (Fortunately — probably because humongous legal bills were not a desirable prospect given the present reality of budget cuts — the matter progressed no farther than noise-making.) And the senator must have forgotten that New Orleans, the city right next door to his district, lost a national science convention because of the LSEA.

Sen. Appel’s position this year is very odd. Apparently, he was not moved at all by the testimony of Dr. Kevin Carman, a biologist and Dean of the College of Science at Louisiana State University, who told the committee flat out that the LSEA has had a negative effect on recruiting and retaining scientists at LSU.

Carman said two top scientists who rejected his offer to come to LSU cited the Louisiana Science [Education] Act as the reason they wouldn’t come to LSU. Also, I just lost an evolution biologist who said he was leaving the state because his children are nearing school age and he didn’t want them to attend a school where they might not be taught true science.

Teaching pseudo-science drives scientists away,’ Carman said. [Shreveport Times, April 19, 2012; emphasis added]

OK, let’s go slow and get this straight. Sen. Appel wants the Board of Regents to find ways to increase the number of university science majors in Louisiana, but he isn’t concerned about the fact that the LSEA is driving university science professors away from Louisiana. He heard Dean Carman, a university administrator, testify that Louisiana has lost TWO prospective scientists and ONE who was already here because of this flaming farce of a law.

Assessing This Situation

Given Sen. Appel’s apathy about the damage to Louisiana science education that he learned about from Dean Carman, what explains his sudden, end-of-the-session concern with the quality of science education? Was his SR 120 merely an attempt at damage control? Did he have second thoughts about just sitting there and not voting after Dean Carman came all the way down to the Capitol from his busy job trying to attract and keep science professors? Was the resolution motivated purely by concern for the state’s economic development prospects? Surely, Sen. Appel realizes that Louisiana can never become “more educated and [start] gaining economic ground” by running off the science professors who will be responsible for teaching future wage-earners.

Here’s an idea: Concerned readers who live in Sen. Appel’s District 9 [pdf] should get together with other, pro-science citizens of his district and schedule a sit-down visit with him before the next repeal bill is introduced in 2013. Appel’s district office is located at 721 Papworth Avenue, Suite 102A, Metairie, LA 70005. The phone number is (504) 838-5550. You could take along some beignets. (There’s a Cafe du Monde Coffee Stand right over on 3301 Veterans Boulevard.) Or, if you go around Mardi Gras (February 12, 2013), you could bring him a king cake from Gambino’s! (Metairie residents know the significance of Gambino’s.)

Please remind Sen. Appel that the LSEA is doing more than just making us look stupid down here. It is literally keeping smart people from coming to Louisiana to teach the students about whom he professes to be concerned. That can’t be good for economic development. Tell him that you appreciate the fact that his position appears to be “evolving.” Last year, he voted against repeal. This year he sat out the vote. Next year, maybe he will vote for repeal. He could conceivably even survive the next election cycle despite doing the right thing!

Hey, it’s worth a shot.


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Copyright © 2012. Louisiana Coalition for Science. All rights reserved.