Tennessee is on the verge of enacting a bill to allow teachers to address “debates” and “disputes” surrounding scientific “controversies” like evolution and climate change. Proponents say the bill is supposed to empower teachers to address their students’ concerns and to foster debate; critics argue it’s a back door to teaching creationism and questioning settled science.
Dubbed the “Monkey Bill” by opponents — a nod to the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” in the same state, in which a high school teacher was under fire for teaching evolution — SB 893 permits teachers “to help students understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.” Subjects that might invite such debate, according to the bill, include “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning.”
The bill’s proponents, including the Senate bill’s sponsor Bo Watson (R-Hixson) — a college biology major — says the bill “does not endorse, promote or allow the teaching of any nonscientific, nonconventional theories in the scientific classroom.” Another proponent of the bill explained that it would help teachers respond to questions along the lines of, “Wait a minute, this doesn’t mesh with what I learned in Sunday school.”
But the bill’s critics aren’t convinced. Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, says the bill is an effort to gut science education and give students and teachers the tools to bring conversations about creationism into the classroom.
In a letter to some state legislators urging they vote against the bill, Weinberg pointed out that the language it uses, such as “strengths and weaknesses” of existing scientific theories, are “are typically code words in the evolution debate to introduce non-scientific ideas like creationism and intelligent design into the science curriculum.” Moreover, the bill appears to be adopted from model legislation put forth by the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, which promotes “intelligent design.”
A host of scientific and education groups oppose the bill, including all eight Tennessee members of the National Academy of Sciences, who issued a joint statement condemning the measure.
Watson introduced SB 893 last spring. It was put on ice for several months, but Watson began pushing it again this year. Because it was slightly amended in the Senate, the House, which passed the bill last year, must pass it again before it heads to the governor’s desk. Weinberg says her organization’s efforts will be pushing for the governor’s veto since the bill is likely to pass the House. But a governor’s veto in Tennessee can be overridden by a simple majority vote in the legislature.
Another education-related bill working its way through the state legislature also addresses the types of information available to students in the classroom. This week, education committees in the House and Senate are considering sex-education legislation. Broadly, the legislation shifts sex education in the state to an abstinence-based program (local school boards are already required to “stress” abstinence) and would require fewer counties to require teach sex-ed at all.
“They’re saying, ‘We think that these kids should be only taught abstinence,’” said Keri Adams, vice president of external affairs at Planned Parenthood of Middle and Eastern Tennessee, while also telling more counties that “you don’t have to talk about it at all.” Overall, the point is to narrow the purview and incidence of sex ed — a tact seemingly at odds with the science-education bill, whose backers insist would allow multiple viewpoints into the classroom. And yet, some legislators support them both.
“With the evolution debate in particular,” said Adams, “it’s like, ‘Well, we think kids should be able to be curious and that they’re intelligent enough to sort through the information and decide for themselves’ with a little asterisk that says, ‘except for comprehensive sex ed.’”
But state Sen. Jack Johnson, who sponsored the abstinence education bill in the Senate and voted for SB 893, says they’re “two totally different things.”
On subjects like science and evolution, Johnson told TPM, “those are issues that we do want our kids to think and consider and be thinking about all aspects.” But family life planning, Tennessee’s sexuality education curriculum, “when you’re talking about family life planning, that’s far more instructional, not something you sit around and have a debate about.”d
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Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.