Political Horizons: Science Act challenge not very effective

In three years, the would-be drive to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act has attracted exactly four votes in the Legislature.

Not just four votes when the latest hearing was held on May 1 but four votes total after three hearings in 2013, 2012 and 2011.

That means a legislative bill that has to clear the state Senate Education Committee, the full Senate, the House Education Committee and the full House has never emerged from its committee of origin.

Merits aside, and repeal backers are a passionate, articulate and thoughtful bunch, the fact is the repeal push has never gained an ounce of political traction.

And it shows no signs of getting any this year, next year or the year after.

Put simply, until repeal supporters get in the political trenches and convince lawmakers that the 2008 law should be scrapped, the annual debate will amount to little more than a committee sideshow that goes on for hours and everyone knows the ending.

State Sen. Karen Peterson, D-New Orleans and sponsor of the bill, made brief remarks at the start of this year’s hearing and then disappeared.

The law was touted as a way to promote freewheeling discussions in science classrooms.

Open up debates on evolution and other topics, supporters said, and students would benefit and educators would not have to worry about running afoul of rules on what they are supposed to teach.

The law does this by allowing supplemental materials “that promote critical thinking skills, logical analysis and open and objective discussions of scientific theories being studied,” including evolution.

Critics have complained for five years that the law allows for the teaching of creationism, which is the view that life began about 6,000 years ago in a process described in the Bible’s book of Genesis.

The chief problem for repeal backers this year, and in past debates, is that they cannot cite a single case of a parent or student complaining about what is being taught in a science classroom because of the law.

“There is no problem I know of, not one,” said state Sen. Bodi White, R-Central and one of the solid “no” votes on repeal on the Senate Education Committee.

White said he discussed the issue with Michael Faulk, superintendent of the highly rated Central Community school district.

“They haven’t gotten any complaints,” White said.

Repeal backers contend the mere possibility that the law could permit the teaching of “nonsense” under the guise of science is reason enough to get rid of it.

State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, one of two yes votes on repeal this time, said he thinks the statute allows for the teaching of creationism as science.

“And I am not for that,” Claitor added.

Critics also argue that, aside from specific cases of science teaching run amuck, the law is an embarrassment for a state already derided on other fronts.

“It makes us look like idiots down here,” Barbara Forrest, a professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, said last year.

To that end, Claitor got an amendment added to another bill that would repeal a 1981 state law that was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987.

That measure required the teaching of creationism when evolution was taught in public schools.

The 2008 law’s biggest splash, in a negative way, took place the year after it passed.

Leaders of a national science group said they crossed off New Orleans as a possible meeting spot for their 2011 convention because the law could turn the teaching of evolution upside down. Repeal backers also note that 78 Nobel laureates have denounced the measure.

But that fails to resonate in the Louisiana Legislature.

Neither does testimony from college professors, high school science teachers and earnest college students, all of whom have made fervent, if futile, pitches for three years in a row.

Lawmakers respond to frantic parents making phone calls, sending emails and getting in their faces at the State Capitol.

They take notice when issues explode and become hot topics on talk radio, like their own, giant pay hikes did in 2008.

And they sit up when the governor makes the issue a big issue, which can turn little-noticed topics into front-page news.

None of that has happened with the push to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act.

It remains a hot topic periodically in academia, not the Louisiana Legislature. Even if lawmakers have a sudden change of heart and vote to repeal the law, backers of repeal would face yet another problem.

Gov. Bobby Jindal would probably veto it.

Will Sentell covers state education policy for The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is wsentell@theadvocate.com.