What next in Tennessee?

What difference will Tennessee's new monkey law make in the state's science classrooms? That was the question asked by the Nashville Tennessean (April 15, 2012). The new law encourages teachers in the state's public schools to present the "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses" of topics that arouse "debate and disputation" such as "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning." Despite his concern that the bill would cause confusion, Governor Bill Haslam decided to allow the bill to become law without his signature on April 10, 2012.

"Maybe it has a no-religion clause," the Tennessean characterized the law's critics as arguing, "but it gives a wink to teachers looking to promote their beliefs in the classroom — a move that would launch costly lawsuits that history shows school districts tend to lose." Hedy Weinberg, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, told the newspaper that her group is in touch with concerned parents across the state, "waiting for one to report First Amendment violations teachers could make under the mistaken notion that they now have full protection."

Vic Walczak of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, who was on the team representing the plaintiffs in Kitzmiller v. Dover, the 2005 case establishing the unconstitutionality of teaching "intelligent design" creationism in the public schools, argued that the law places local school districts in a precarious situation: "It basically neuters school boards and administrators from disciplining teachers who run off the rails," he said. "And when the district gets sued by a parent, the teacher gets off scot-free? Why would you do that?" Walczak added, "I would love to come down and do Dover II."

Gary Nixon, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education, was sanguine, saying, "We have some very solid science standards to be taught, and we expect those to be taught." But the Tennessean noted that the state's science standards received a grade of D in the Fordham Foundation's latest evaluation of state science standards, with the life science section faring poorest. Tennessee is committed, however, to adopting the Next Generation Science Standards, due later in the year, in which evolution is emphasized as one of the "disciplinary core ideas" of the life sciences.

What's in the standards and what's in the classroom are not necessarily the same. Mike Kohut, a researcher at Vanderbilt University studying evolution education in Tennessee, found in his interviews of students and teachers that "one director of schools admitted he knew teachers taught creationism in the classroom. A teacher said he was offended he is forced to teach evolution. A science coordinator said teaching evolution was a good way to get fired in her district." Kohut regarded it as likely that teachers who wish to introduce intelligent design would understand the law allowing them to do so.

Confirmation that evolution may already be ignored or disparaged in Tennessee classrooms came from the Chattanooga Times Free Press (April 15, 2012), which quoted one teacher as saying, "We don't even call it evolution. We call it genetic change," and contending, "[Evolution] has nothing to do with whether man was once a monkey." Becky Ashe, president of the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, told the Times Free Press that she (like Kohut) feared that teachers, especially in small rural districts, might take the law as license to teach creationism to their students.

Derek DeSantis, a high school biology and anatomy teacher — and the husband of Larisa DeSantis, the Vanderbilt University paleontologist who organized a petition calling on Governor Haslam to veto the bill — told the Tennessean, "It's not taboo to discuss [religious questions about the veracity of evolution] now ... So if the questions arise, you can talk about it, but it's not the curriculum to teach. So you answer a child's question and move onto the facts of the curriculum." He added, "Honestly, as an educator and a parent, as a teacher in the system, I don't see the need for [the law]."