Picking my way through the contradictions: Science and Florida’s tax credit scholarship program

A line from an op-ed in Saturday’s Gainesville Sun written by Alachua County School Board member Eileen Roy (and brought my attention via a tweet from Florida Citizens for Science Communications Director Brandon Haught) has stopped me dead in my tracks:

Teaching children that science is corrupt is no way to equip them for the modern world and will cause them and society future harm.

Not that science is perfect.  Any human endeavor is subject to the imperfections in human nature.  But using scientific evidence to draw conclusions about the laws of nature has been and continues to be foundational to society’s technological and economic progress.

But that wasn’t what stopped me.  What has me in a bit of a spin is that this argument was used to oppose the expansion of Florida’s tax credit scholarship program, in which some of the participating schools are run by religious organizations that reject scientific conclusions about nature on doctrinal grounds.

It is beyond debate that some of the students attending these schools are doing so because their parents do not want them exposed to the scientific consensus on evolution and cosmology.  Certainly some of the parents who can afford to pay tuition at schools like North Florida Christian School in Tallahassee are paying so that their children can avoid the instruction on evolution and cosmology offered (admittedly imperfectly) in Leon County’s public schools.

How many of the 60,000 students using tax credit scholarships in 2013-2014 are attending their schools specifically to avoid being exposed to the scientific consensus on evolution and cosmology?  It is at least difficult and perhaps impossible to say.  But here is a vexing question:  If parents of means can steer their children to North Florida Christian School to avoid instruction on evolution and cosmology that is based on Florida’s science standards, should the State of Florida provide less affluent students such an opportunity, too?

This isn’t to say that all children being served by the tax credit scholarship program are in the program because their parents do not want them being taught about evolution and cosmology.  I know from personal experience that some of the schools participating in the tax credit scholarship program have exemplary science instruction – notably Catholic schools.  And many or most of the students in the tax credit scholarship program are participating to escape schools that are generally doing a poor job in instruction or to escape a personal situation in a public school that makes learning untenable there.

And this is where I depart from Eileen Roy’s argument that the tax credit scholarship program should be terminated simply because it is public money going to private schools.  If you think all school choice is bad simply because it diverts money from traditional public schools, give yourself a chance to read the story in The Atlantic on Tuscaloosa’s Central High School.  Alabama does not have a charter school program nor a tax credit scholarship program.  The kids in Central High are stuck there without choices, and that is very bad.

Nevertheless, I am stuck on the link between the tax credit scholarship program and the insistence by some parents that their children not be exposed to the teaching of science as a field based entirely on experimental evidence untouched by doctrinal considerations.  After all, on the day that Florida’s science standards were approved by the State Board of Education in 2008, we were warned by evolution education opponent and President of the Florida Family Policy Council John Stemberger of an “exodus from public schools”.

Advocates for the expansion of the tax credit scholarship program presently being debated in the Florida Legislature should attend to the fact that the science education argument keeps cropping up.  A certain segment of the electorate – me, for example – would actually support the expansion if only tax credit scholarship schools would agree to accept the same accommodation that traditional public schools and charter schools adopt in towns and cities where religious objections to evolution and cosmology are widespread.  In those schools, teachers acknowledge their students’ religious beliefs and make a deal with these students and their parents:  The teachers will not attempt to tear down their students’ religious beliefs as long as the students agree to learn about the scientific consensus on evolution and cosmology.

In practice, the way we know this accommodation is in place in the traditional public and charter schools is through Florida’s statewide testing program, which includes general science tests in 5th and 8th grades based on the science standards the state adopted in 2008 and an end-of-course exam for the state’s standard high school biology course.

And here is where the discussion once again makes contact with the debate in the Florida Legislature.  The expansion of the tax credit scholarship program would have sailed through the Republican-dominated legislature except for one rather large personality – Senate President Don Gaetz.  He has said unequivocally that he would support the proposed expansion of the program if the schools participating in the program would adopt Florida’s standardized testing program – including the science tests – so that parents can compare tax credit scholarship schools with charter schools and traditional public schools based on academic performance data.  Tax credit scholarship advocates have remained stubbornly opposed to Gaetz’s proposal, and any day now their intransigence will sink the expansion proposal for the year.

Accepting the Gaetz proposal will not make Eileen Roy happy, but it will make me and (more to the point) President Gaetz happy.  My advice to the tax credit scholarship advocates:  Take the deal.  Declare victory.  And maybe some of your students will be a little better equipped to participate in the technological economy they will be entering once their schooling days are over.


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