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The Senator and the Science Committee

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
The Senator and the Science Committee
Author(s): 
Robert T. Dillon, Jr.
Volume: 
25
Issue: 
1–2
Year: 
2005
Date: 
January–April
Page(s): 
4–5
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
The origin of the 2005 threat to science education in South Carolina can be traced back five years to the initial adoption of science curriculum standards by our state board of education. Those standards, subsequently awarded a grade of "A" by the Fordham Foundation, included a rigorous treatment of evolutionary science. (See RNCSE 2000 Jan–Apr; 20 [1–2]: 14–5 for a review of the controversy surrounding the adoption of a standard science curriculum for South Carolina in 2000.)

One might expect that legislation requiring textbooks and other educational materials to match academic standards would be a logical follow-up to the adoption of statewide curricula. Such legislation was indeed introduced in the South Carolina General Assemblies of 2001–2002 and 2003–2004 without success. Science educators were caught by surprise in April 2003 when Senator Mike Fair (R–Greenville) amended the textbook bill to establish a "South Carolina Science Standards Committee" to examine "alternatives to evolution"; fortunately, that bill died in the House at the end of the 2004 session. So when Fair and two co-sponsors pre-filed S114 for consideration by the 2005–2006 General Assembly "relating to the criteria for the adoption of instructional materials for the public schools," friends of science education in South Carolina were alert and ready for action.

The legislative approach taken by Fair is unique, insofar as we are aware. His bill included 4 sections: (1) requiring that textbooks match the state standards, (2) establishing a science committee to examine those standards, (3) providing no funds for the science committee, and (4) repealing the old law. The (rather detailed) section (2) specified a committee membership of 19 to be appointed almost entirely by politicians and charged the committee with determining "whether there is a consensus on the definition of science" and "whether alternatives to evolution as the origin of species should be offered in schools."

Fair's district includes the fortress-like Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist institution that "exists to grow Christ-like character that is scripturally disciplined." And clearly the intent of his legislation was to introduce creationism into the South Carolina public school curriculum. But because S114 did not specifically authorize the science committee to take any action, nor provide any public funding for its deliberations, it is difficult to see how the constitutionality of his legislation could be challenged.

In January 2005, S114 was referred to the Senate Education K–12 Subcommittee, where Fair holds considerable influence. The K–12 Subcommittee is chaired by Robert Hayes (R–Rock Hill), a member of the Presbyterian Church in America — a small fundamentalist organization that has broken from the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA) over the ordination of women.

Citizen Action

With the assistance of the NCSE, a statewide group of concerned citizens organized in early 2005 to oppose S114. The group was primarily composed of faculty from the College of Charleston, the University of South Carolina, and Clemson University, with members from public-school education and the community at large, including clergy. We enjoyed excellent communication through an open listserver organized in 2000 by the AIBS, as well as through a more restricted NCSE system.

Early response is a key to successfully countering a creationist threat. So when the Senate K–12 subcommittee first took up S114 on February 9, both Doug Florian (College of Charleston) and I were present to offer comments, supported by a number of allies in the gallery. I argued that the current state science standards are excellent, and that S114 as currently drafted would seem designed to fix a process that "ain't broke." I observed that the term "science" is well-defined, that no committee need be impaneled to examine the meaning of that term, and that there are no "alternatives to evolution" that qualify as science under any conventional definition. Doug followed my comments with a brief review of the legal precedents regarding creationism, should some hypothetical science committee reach ill-conceived recommendations leading in that direction. Also offering comment was a representative from the state Council of Teachers of Mathematics, who simply asked for a clean bill requiring textbooks to match standards, obviously opposing both science committees and creationism without specifically mentioning either.

A debt of gratitude is owed to Senator JW Matthews (D–Bowman), who arrived at the subcommittee meeting prepared with an amendment to strike section (2) from S114. Matthews opined that the evolution/creationism issues raised in section (2) seemed too important and controversial to be confounded with the simple textbook issues addressed in section (1). His motion to strike section (2) was approved by a vote of 5–3, with Hayes joining Fair in the minority.

What goes 'round …

But we had not heard the last of Senator Fair or his Science Committee. On February 23, S114 was remanded by the full committee back to the K–12 Subcommittee without objection. Working through contacts, we were able to preview draft language for a new amendment to be proposed by Fair. In his new conception, the Science Committee would "determine whether scientific alternatives to socially or scientifically controversial theories should be offered in schools." This language seemed to us even more slippery than the language deleted on February 9 — avoiding mention of evolution, creation, the origin of species, or indeed any specific "socially controversial theory" at all.

After a series of delays, S114 was taken up by the Senate K–12 Subcommittee on April 13. Present to offer comment on this occasion were Jerry Hilbish (USC Biology), John Safko (USC Physics), and I. Fair surprised us all with a new amendment to S114, specifying that his science committee would perform six tasks — some of them overtly creationist, many of them described in terms failing the simple test of subject–verb agreement. His task #5 was, for example, "Is there scientific design theory/ies available for discourse in the public school classrooms of South Carolina?"

I was first to offer comment. I spoke in favor of the simple, clean version of S114 as currently amended, pointing out the logic of textbooks' matching curriculum standards. As I was thanking Senator Matthews and his colleagues for their wisdom in deleting the provision for a science committee in February, I was interrupted by much ado among the senators. Fair stated that he did not realize that his science committee provision had been removed!

I will live and die and never understand how the senator could have been so confused. The language of the amendment he distributed on the morning of April 13 neglected to reinstate his science committee before charging it with the six creationist tasks. So after this (rather important) point was clarified, I finished by observing that a state science committee, as originally proposed by Fair, and obviously still advocated by him, would introduce needless controversy — legal problems, constitutional problems, religious problems — which would complicate the passage of an otherwise simple bill.

Jerry Hilbish came next to the speaker's table, and he offered an excellent overview of the many problems with inserting creationism or "intelligent design" into the public-school curriculum generally. Jerry also spoke highly of the current science curriculum in South Carolina. John Safko followed with some well-aimed attacks at the specifics of Fair's proposed amendment, focusing on the scientific method.

All three of us were engaged at great length by Fair. He denied that any of his legislation had any religious content or motivation. He listed all the books on his shelves supporting his position, authored by such respected scientists as Gish, Behe, Denton, and Dembski. He called for a tornado to assemble the South Carolina statehouse spontaneously. He evoked pathetic images of his scarred youth, tricked by diagrams of humped-over human ancestors — all faked! We must ensure that both sides of this story are fairly presented, he argued.

Fair concluded by moving that S114 be amended to include the same science standards committee as described in the original version of his legislation, but changed so that its charge included the six tasks specified that morning. Chairman Hayes seconded Fair's proposal. The amendment failed on a vote of 5–3. Then Hayes put the main motion — to report S114 to the Senate favorably without amendment — and that passed unanimously.

This was the best result we could have hoped for, and we were all quite pleased. Afterward I met a lobbyist outside the meeting room who remarked how refreshing it was to hear anything intelligent said at a Senate committee meeting. He commented at length on the influence that can be wielded by three PhD scientists in a meeting such as we had just attended. John, Jerry, and I sat front row center all morning and controlled the show, simply by speaking calmly and looking reasonable.

S114 successfully passed the Senate in clean form on April 26 and went to the House on May 5, where the political climate has been much more favorable in previous sessions. Senator Fair's efforts did, however, slightly affect the review process for our Year 2000 state science curriculum, which (by accident of timing) is on a 5-year cycle. The work of the Science Standards Review Panel, a committee of 28 professional science educators assembled by the State Department of Education, was delayed by the threat of a politically-appointed science committee as envisioned by Fair.

Among the many lessons to be taken from the events of the previous months are the values of information, organization, communication, and early action. We also suggest that it is especially important, even in the face of success, never to declare victory. A new battle may be looming in South Carolina later this year, when our freshly revised science curriculum standards are submitted to the state board of education for approval. We'll keep you posted.

About the Author(s): 
Robert T. Dillon, Jr.
Department of Biology
College of Charleston
Charleston SC 29424
dillonr@cofc.edu