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Column: Science shortfall at voucher schools

A fiery debate over expanding the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program is attracting lots of attention in Tallahassee.

I'm a member of Florida Citizens for Science, which defends and promotes good science in our classrooms. So, predictably, we're focused on the science education angle of this issue. What is the quality of science instruction in the private schools that accept taxpayers' money through this program?

We found that some of these schools are grossly negligent in the science classroom. That answer is shocking, but even worse is how this fact is ignored in the school voucher debates.

Many private schools have a rigorous science curriculum and instill a sense of wonder and thirst for scientific exploration in their students. However, research has revealed that at least 164 voucher-accepting private schools in Florida teach creationism.

Many of those schools are very proud of this fact. It's a successful selling point. And they get away with it because they aren't held accountable for what goes on in the science lab. Tax credit scholarship students are required by state law to take state-approved standardized tests in reading and math, but not in science.

These creationist schools may have stellar reading programs. Their smaller class sizes and more one-on-one instruction may help students overcome their fear of math. That's admirable and we applaud those efforts.

But the creationist schools butcher science education by teaching that the Earth is only about 6,000 years old contrary to the fact that we, homo sapiens, have been around much longer than that by about 200,000 years. Some dismiss evolution as devilish tomfoolery, which would certainly surprise evolutionary biologists in our state universities and at the Scripps Research Institute.

With this in mind, the argument that parents will hold private schools accountable by walking away from substandard ones rings hollow. It's heartbreaking when parents purposely want what is in reality a distorted funhouse mirror version of science education. That's a travesty for the students.

Creationist thinking starts with a conclusion and then collects facts that support that conclusion while discarding or ignoring facts that disagree with it. That's not science. Scientific thinking collects all of the available facts and then draws conclusions based on where the evidence leads. Students in creationist classes are being taught what to think, not how to think.

Florida Citizens for Science does not take a stand for or against voucher programs. However, we take a strong, determined stand for sound science education in our home state. Parents have the freedom to choose what kind of education they want for their children, whether it's in a public school, private school or even homeschooling. But Florida's taxpayers should not fund or otherwise support substandard science education.

Brandon Haught is the author of "Going Ape: Florida's Battles over Evolution in the Classroom" and is the communications director for Florida Citizens for Science, which promotes science, defends Florida's new state science standards and helps to implement them across Florida. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Column: Science shortfall at voucher schools 03/19/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 19, 2014 6:12pm]

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