Science Education May Be Devolving In South Dakota

If some South Dakota legislators have their way, the state’s public school students soon may be learning the “alternative facts” version of science: Senate Bill 55 could open the door to creationism being taught in classrooms.

Republican Sen. Jeff Monroe sponsored the bill to “protect the teaching of certain scientific information,” which allows teachers to introduce “in an objective scientific manner the strengths and weaknesses of scientific information.”

As the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls notes: “The bill itself is fewer than 40 words, but it’s the space between those words that has science teachers and public educators across the state concerned about its ability to bring nonscientific theories into science classes.”

Legislative phrases like science’s “strengths and weaknesses” or “controversies” usually are code words for the fundamentalist, anti-evolution concepts of creationism and intelligent design. A federal court in 2005 ruled it was unconstitutional to teach intelligent design in public schools; that was the ruling in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case in Pennsylvania, which was brought by Americans United and allies.

Nonetheless, South Dakota’s Monroe has sponsored similar bills since 2014 when he first introduced legislation that would have specifically permitted the teaching of intelligent design, according to the Argus Leader. However, this is the first time in four years such a bill has passed the South Dakota legislative chamber in which it originated – the Senate approved it late last month, 23-12.

“The state House is dominated by Republicans, so critics of the legislation are hoping they can stop it in the House Education Committee before it reaches the floor,” reported The Washington Post.

Maggie Garrett, legislative director for Americans United, earlier this month wrote to South Dakota’s state House urging representatives to vote down the bill: “Rather than promote scientific thought, it would authorize teachers to discuss and teach ‘intelligent design’ as a ‘critique’ or ‘weakness’ of evolution.” 

Teachers should not be given leeway to introduce intelligent design in science classes

Garrett added there is “no scientific basis for intelligent design and federal courts have made clear that teaching it in public school science classrooms violates” church-state separation.

Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, said the bill could lead to educators introducing climate change denial and white supremacy in addition to creationism. It also would make it difficult for local school boards to rein in maverick teachers who stray from the approved curriculum, he said.

"This is horrible, but let’s say I believe in eugenics," Sioux Falls School District science instructional coach Deb Wolf told the Argus Leader. "(SB 55) says that I couldn’t be prohibited, I couldn’t be stopped from teaching that as long as I did it in an objective scientific manner, and it doesn’t specify what that means."

Branch told The Washington Post he fears President Donald J. Trump’s skepticism of climate change and Vice President Mike Pence’s belief in creationism could lead to more state legislators pushing anti-science proposals.

“Also of concern is the influence that it might have at the level of the local school district or the local school,” Branch said. “The prominence of science denial in the new administration may embolden creationists and climate change deniers to pressure their local teachers; even in the absence of such pressure, it may cause teachers to self-censor in order to avoid the possibility of conflict over these socially — but not scientifically — controversial topics.”

Legislators in Indiana, Oklahoma and Texas also are considering “alternative facts” science legislation. The Washington Post reported at least 60 similar bills have been proposed nationwide since 2014.

Go here to read more of AU’s coverage on the Religious Right’s efforts to push creationism into public schools.