As we saw in the 2005 trial over teaching intelligent design in Dover, Pennsylvania, and are now seeing in Texas, school boards have become a political battleground. Many board members appear to be acting on behalf of religious groups like local churches or the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based standard-bearer of the intelligent design movement.The Discovery Institute seems to be the driving influence here. They have fostered bills in at least five different states that invoke the "strengths and weaknesses" language. In some senses, they are the counterpart to the NCSE. There is a deeper problem at work here:
School science standards should be set by people who understand science and science education. At the same time, it is dangerous to argue that the powers of democratically elected officials should be taken away if they don't produce the outcome you want.
Yet that is what may happen in Texas. State senator Rodney Ellis and representative Garnet Coleman, both Democrats, have introduced legislation that would transfer authority for textbooks and curricula to the Texas Education Agency.
This one always has me over a barrel because I generally support states' rights and the tenets of a representative republic. But you just can't have people like Don McLeroy—who rants "I disagree with these experts. Someone has got to stand up to experts"—promulgating science policy. Is there a solution? The New Scientist seems to think so:
Who would do the vetting? There are just enough science teachers out there with goofy ideas that they might create trouble in that arena. How would that get around "appointments" such as the one that put Don McLeroy in the chair? Unless there is a recall mechanism, science in Texas is screwed for the next several years. If Rick Perry has ID sympathies, the best scientists in the nation won't be able to push through good standards.
One possibility is that candidates for school boards should be vetted before they stand. Another is for the pro-science lobby to engage more fully with the democratic process. After the Dover trial, board members who favoured intelligent design were dumped by the electorate. Something similar could happen in Texas.
Another possibility is to push decisions further up the democratic ladder. President Barack Obama has already called for all states to have the same achievement standards, raising hopes that he might push for federal standards across all US schools. While this might provoke conservative ire, it would put an end to the present situation in which an accident of geography can determine whether a child is taught valid science.
The second solution has more promise but I have a distinct dislike for the continued federal government "creep." The government has completed screwed up public education and I have absolutely no doubt they would screw this up too. Children across the nation are being taught things "for their own good," much of which is garbage. Two of my children are in private school because we want them to get the best education they can—and they are. Marcus, my third grader, is doing things in school that I didn't do until fifth grade. I was in a private school that had a 95% college placement average. But the school that Marcus and Madeline attend teaches creationism. I still haven't figured out you teach kids to think critically and logically about things and them teach them that. But I digress...
I think that the best solution is the vetting option and that prospective school board members should have to pass a test in basic knowledge across several disciplines, as administered by the state education agency. That would weed out people like McLeroy,