Tennessee lawmakers are asking the governor to officially encourage teachers and their students to debate the merits of science theory, like biological evolution and the chemical origins of life, despite opposition from the science community.
Gov. Bill Haslam is warming up to the legislation, initially saying he wasn’t sure where he sat on the issue, then telling reporters that people from all walks of government and education “shouldn’t be afraid to follow the truth where ever it takes us.”
He added he’s not sure how he feels about the General Assembly telling the Board of Education how teachers should handle the curriculum.
“I think that the General Assembly, though, does represent people, and their votes and thoughts matter there,” he told reporters last week after announcing grants for three schools to focus on science, technology, engineering and math. “I’m always going to be a little hesitant to do that until I’ve really had those conversations with both local boards, but particularly state boards who control the curriculum,” he said.
The upper chamber OK’d the legislation 25-8 last week, seconded by the House, which voted 72-23 Monday to send the bill to the governor for final approval.
According to the language of the measure, teachers and school officials “shall endeavor to create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about scientific subjects required to be taught under the curriculum framework developed by the state board of education.”
Debate over HB368 was prominent last year in the Legislature, but caused little political ruckus this year. The measure easily passed both chambers. The bill is opposed by American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, and the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, which see it as a stalking horse for teaching “creationism.”
According to the bill language, the measure seeks to “encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about scientific subjects required to be taught under the curriculum framework.”
It also seeks to stops schools from banning “any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course.”
The ACLU of Tennessee has been a consistent critic of plan, saying it “seeks to subvert scientific principle to religious ideology by granting legal cover to teachers who wish to dress up religious beliefs on the origin of life as pseudo-science.”
“The phrase ‘strengths and weaknesses’ of existing scientific theories is typically code in the evolution debate to introduce non-scientific ideas like creationism and intelligent design into the science curriculum,” contends the ACLU’s Tennessee chapter.
The legislation will next head to the governor’s desk.