Florida bill would have students learn alternatives to climate change, evolution

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said that schools need to teach “different worldviews” on issues like evolution and climate change. He asserts that textbooks now skew toward “uniformity” of thought.
Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala
Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala
Published Jan. 29, 2019

A bill that would allow school districts to teach Florida students alternatives to concepts deemed “controversial theories” — such as human-caused climate change and evolution — has been filed in the state Legislature.

The language of the bill sounds fairly unremarkable, requiring only that schools “shall” teach these “theories” in a “factual, objective, and balanced manner.” But the group that wrote the bill, the Florida Citizens Alliance, says the bill is needed because curriculum currently taught in Florida schools equates to “political and religious indoctrination,” according to their managing director, Keith Flaugh.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said that schools need to teach “different worldviews” on issues like evolution and climate change. He asserts that textbooks now skew toward “uniformity” of thought.

“Nothing is ever settled if it’s science, because people are always questioning science,” Baxley said. “If you look at the history of human learning, for a long time the official worldview was that the world was flat. Anything you now accept as fact comes from a perspective and you learn from examining different schools of thought.”

Both evolution and climate change are well-established fact in the scientific community.

“It is resolved,” said Ben Kirtman, a professor of Atmospheric Sciences the University of Miami, in reference to climate change. “I find this a way to create artificial doubt about the science to control policy conversation, which is antithetical to the way we do things in this country … The danger is you’re going to have people who don’t have a fundamental understanding of the way science works.”

Teaching alternative concepts would also take time away from what occupies already-packed curriculum schedules — established science, said Brandon Haught, a founding board member of Florida Citizens for Science who also teaches freshman environmental science at a high school about 45 minutes north of Orlando.

“In K-12, keep in mind, we’re laying the basic foundation for the rest of their lives … I want to teach them science, period,” he said. “We only have a handful of days for dedicated lesson on this topic (climate change), so I don’t have time to say, ‘This is what other people think.’”

Baxley’s bill also touches on history lessons, requiring that “government and civics content shall strictly adhere to the founding values and principles of the United States.”

Baxley is known as a lightning rod for contentious issues, running bills in the past from everything to allowing guns in churches to banning designated protest areas called “free speech zones” on college campuses. He was also one of the authors of the 2005 “stand your ground” bill. Flaugh said that language is designed to guard against certain textbooks, such as those made by the textbook giant Pearson, which he argues are “teaching Socialism.”

“They’re actually undermining our principles and values,” he said. “One of the biggest things they do is they’re teaching our kids that the Electoral College is out-of-date. That’s the only vestige of our Constitutional republic that’s left.”

The bill would allow school boards to adopt a core curriculum that differs from the state’s current state standards, as long as they are “equivalent to or more rigorous” in terms of difficulty.

This bill was also filed last year and has a long road ahead with four committee assignments in the Senate. Flaugh said he expects a House version to be filed shortly.

But the Alliance’s priorities will have a better shot this year than they ever have.

That’s because this group has been gaining influence in the state for the past few years, going from a grassroots movement in the Naples area to advising Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Flaugh and another member of the Florida Citizens Alliance were appointed to DeSantis’ committee that advised his transition team on education. Flaugh said he and another leader of the group met with DeSantis during his primary campaign.

In 2017, the group successfully got another bill passed, which created a process for all community members — rather than just parents of public school students — to object to textbooks and other classroom materials being taught in each school district. It also required districts to make public its list of educational materials.

Flaugh said the group has grown its mailing list from 20,000 people to 50,000 in the past 18 months. And they’re continuing to grow “community watchdog teams” in different Florida counties to evaluate social studies textbooks and file challenges with the districts.

He pointed to DeSantis’ three conservative picks for the state Supreme Court as well as the appointment of Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran as reasons that support for the educational policies of the Alliance will continue to grow.

“I’ve been doing this for six years,” he said. “And I’m more optimistic now than I’ve ever been.”