Josh Rosenau's picture

Laboring for science education

While taking the day off for Labor Day, I couldn’t help thinking about all that the science education community owes labor unions.

Organize!, school of small fish chasing big fishWhen a teacher calls NCSE for help fending off pressure from administrators who want to see creationism taught and climate change denied, the first thing we ask is “how’s your union?” Where teachers have a strong union, they have a ready defense against attempts to undermine science education. And even where state policies and other factors weaken the power of unions, knowing that teachers will stand together against improper pressure can be enough to defuse attacks by climate change deniers and creationists.

Teachers unions have also played a key role in legal action against creationist policies. Consider the legal challenge which overturned Arkansas’s Scopes-era ban on teaching evolution. Susan Epperson is the name we remember from the case, but it should not be forgotten that she was answering a call for plaintiffs issued by the Arkansas Education Association–the state affiliate of the NEA. The NEA and ACLU brought her case from the Arkansas Chancery Court all the way to the US Supreme Court. There, thanks to hard work by Epperson and her union, the justices ruled that the law violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Teachers unions also stepped forward in the next (and most recent) Supreme Court ruling on creationism. In 1987’s Edwards v. Aguillard, the NEA joined with NCSE and a number of other scientific, educational, and civil liberties groups (and leading scientists including Stephen Jay Gould) to file an amicus brief, arguing that Louisiana’s “Balanced Treatment” Act violated the First Amendment. Such briefs are a way for interested parties to share their concerns, their legal arguments, and their background knowledge with the court even though they aren’t parties to the lawsuit.

The American Federation of Teachers–the other large teachers union, affiliated with the AFL-CIO–also filed an amicus brief in Edwards. It argued that the law, which required teachers to give equal time to creationism and evolution in classrooms, did not truly protect academic freedom (as the law’s text and its supporters claimed):

Academic freedom is the teacher's freedom to determine the form and content of instruction and teaching materials consistent with professional and curricular standards. Academic freedom, like the discretion of public school authorities, has limits, among them the constitutional requirement of separation of church and state: a public school teacher is no more free to teach religious doctrine than a public school board is free to adopt a religious curriculum. Teachers should, and do, have the freedom to teach scientific theory, whether or not it happens to coincide with a particular religious doctrine. Teachers should, and do, have the freedom to teach about religions. But, teachers do not have the freedom to disregard the First Amendment by teaching religious doctrine, even if couched in scientific terminology. The Act's statement of purpose is a non sequit[u]r.

That passage is as relevant today as it was 27 years ago, as we face an onslaught of creationist legislation again purporting to protect “academic freedom.” And Labor remains as important today in fighting back those bills: state affiliates of NEA and AFT have spoken out against such bills in many states, including in Tennessee, where such a bill passed. Even without the spur of legislation, the Oregon chapter of the AFT recently adopted a powerful statement opposing attempts to undermine evolution education.

Little wonder, then, that the NCSE booth was so well received at the recent NEA convention in Atlanta. And given the strong support NEA and its members have shown for evolution, we couldn’t help marveling at the creationist exhibits at the convention. My colleague Minda Berbeco, who helped staff the booth, writes:

Honestly, teachers were surprised to see us there. Many tentatively approached our booth, asking if we “believed” in evolution, and when we told them we were there to represent the science, they were so relieved some even began to tear up, crying out (somewhat ironically), “thank God you’re here!” It was surprising how hungry they were for support from groups like us. Surprising, too, that NCSE was the only science organization represented. In speaking with the science caucus, we learned that, not one, but two, creationist booths had been at NEA for nearly ten years, handing out free materials to any teacher who wanted it. A science organization had not appeared in that time to represent the scientific community’s position on evolution.

Just as Labor has stood strong for evolution and climate education, we’re glad to be able to stand by teachers not just on Labor Day, but through all our work.