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State of the Union: An Academic Freedom Bill Roundup

Tennesse State Capitol.jpg

The lawmaking season is again upon us, and still young. As of this writing it is not yet Darwin Day (February 12), but eleven bills addressing academic freedom in science education, and one bill inappropriately seeking to mandate intelligent design, have already been introduced in six states. More bills relating to academic freedom in science education may follow before summer comes. Thousands of bills compete for legislative time and attention, so it is no small thing for an academic freedom bill to become law in a given legislative session.

Genuine academic freedom legislation covering science education grants rights of open inquiry to K-12 science students and teachers. This is basically a liberal vision of science education, one that should be embraced by folks on either side of the political divide. After years of deliberation and politicking, the academic freedom bill HB 368 became law last year in Tennessee (TN). Although the text of TN HB 368 is not identical to Discovery Institute's original model academic freedom statute, it constitutes the gold standard for current academic freedom bill language, and it is that by which we'll judge the earliest fruits of this year's crop. First, the good.

Good Academic Freedom Bills: MT, AZ, MO, OK

Following Tennessee's example, Montana's HB 183 would free K-12 public school science teachers from fear of administrative reprisal to teach objectively both sides of scientific controversies as such matters arise during the normal course of curricular instruction. Wait. What? What does that mean? How about an example.

Helena, MT, is considering, say, whether to protect at law, for the sake of advanced critical thinking instruction, a lesson plan on the biology unit on mutation and selection that involves questions (but no force-fed answers!) like those raised here. Teacher-led memorization by students of the statements in the textbook is a banal, unexciting and ultimately ineffective way to learn. And it is completely protected. What needs protecting, and a bit more press, is a less deferential approach to the textbook writers: open inquiry. That's the policy end that academic freedom law serves.

In Phoenix, Arizona, lawmakers there have roughly the same idea before them in the words of AZ SB 1213. Missouri's MO HB 179 will soon prompt no small discussion of the merits of academic freedom. And in Oklahoma City they've got twin copies of the same Tennessee-style bill to consider, one in each legislative chamber, by way of OK SB 758 and OK HB 1674, respectively.

Now on to the almost good.

Almost-Good Academic Freedom Bills: IN and CO

Indiana's IN HB 1283 follows in the path of Tennessee but adds to it a small wrinkle: academic freedom there would extend protection for two-sided teaching not only to science, but to history and health as well. There's no doubt some wisdom in this move, but it is untested, and involves subjects outside of Discovery Institute's wheelhouse. That said, we trust that Indiana's lawmakers know how best to adapt the general academic freedom idea to the particular needs of Hoosier students.

Still in the almost good camp, Colorado's CO HB 1089 would stick to just science but would cover K-12 science teachers and those in higher ed as well. All well and good in principle, but for a variety of reasons the law treats higher ed teachers different from those in K-12. So the shape of this proposal is not without a few question marks, some of which were treated at a recent hearing.

Not-So-Good Bills: TX and MO

In Texas via TX HB 285 they're kicking around the idea of specifically protecting intelligent design research in higher ed. This no doubt well-meaning proposal would only politicize intelligent design, however. Intelligent design needs to avoid courthouses and statehouses in order to make its way on the scientific merits through the scientific community, which is where the debate over ID belongs.

Even worse, Missouri's non-academic freedom bill, MO HB 291, mandates "equal time" for intelligent design with competing views in K-12 public schools. Now, making intelligent design research the subject of a higher ed bill, as in TX HB 285 above, would only hinder the scientific mission of the movement. So you can imagine that doing something like that in the K-12 context, where the law is far touchier, would just be a hot mess. Discovery Institute explicitly opposes efforts to mandate intelligent design in public schools.

Summing up, academic freedom bills are more or less good in relation to how closely they hew to the language of the Tennessee academic freedom bill of 2012. That bill, now law, has like the Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008 extended protection to good teaching on scientific controversy while suffering no legal challenge whatsoever. Reform-minded lawmakers from around the nation have in this language an excellent example to follow, a recipe for science education success.

Why mess with a good thing?

Image: Tennessee State Capitol, StudioMobile/Flickr.