2014-01-23 / Top News

Maple fest proposed for state title

Science teaching, town council bills also filed

MONTEREY — If a measure before the General Assembly is successful, Highland County’s Maple Festival could become Virginia’s official state maple festival.

Del. Richard “Dickie” Bell introduced a bill (HB 107) for that purpose.

Bell told The Recorder he thought about it last year when a measure for an official state Shakespeare festival was passed. “I thought, we’ve got Highland County’s maple festival, and there’s no other one in the state that I know of… We need to get this designation. It gets you a lot of free mention from tourist marketing.”

The bill would amend Virginia’s code relating to official emblems and designations.

It has been referred to the Committee on Rules in the House.

Monterey Town Council

Bell also introduced the bill needed for a change in the number of Monterey’s town council members. The council had requested the change last year.

HB 322, as introduced, would amend the town’s charter reducing the number of council members from six to three beginning with the May 2018 election.

Town elections will be held this May, with the current number of six slots on the ballot; the change will take place four years later, if the bill passes successfully, and the governing body would then be composed of a mayor and three council members.

The bill was referred to the Committee on Counties, Cities and Towns Jan. 2, and its subcommittee on Jan. 9.

Organ donation

A bill that would establish a system of “presumed consent” for donating organs was introduced, and later killed.

HB 154 proposed to make it law that everyone donates organs unless they sign a directive refusing to donate. If someone were to register refusal, there would be no automatic “anatomical gift.”

Bell said he introduced the bill because it honored a remarkable young woman he came to know, who had survived as a child thanks to organ donation, and a double lung replacement. “She is now a sophomore at W&L; she is a poised, passionate young lady,” Bell said. Previously, Bell said, the two of them made a presentation to the Board of Education to move school instruction on organ donation from driver’s education courses to ninth-grade health classes, which the BOE did. “The bill was mostly on her behalf,” Bell said. “Virginia Beach doctors really liked it, because of the critical shortage (on organs).”

However, he said, he got such strong opposition to it that he killed it in the House Committee on Health, Welfare and Institutions last month, stricken from the docket by voice vote Jan. 9.

“It caused a real dust-up,” Bell said. Critics believed the measure would be allowing the government to reach too far, dictating what people do with their bodies. “Ironically,” Bell said, “those groups were using the same language as those who are pro-abortion.”

Teaching ‘controversial’ scientific theories

By far, Bell’s proposal for science teachers has attracted the most scrutiny.

HB 207 would require the Board of Education, local school boards, superintendents and other school officials to create an environment in schools that encourages students to “explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about scientific controversies in science classes.”

In addition, the measure says school officials would help teachers find “effective ways to present scientific controversies in science classes,” and “allow teachers to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in science classes.”

The bill further states school officials could not prohibit a teacher from helping students “understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in science classes.”

The bill says nothing in its section should be construed “to promote or discriminate against any religious or nonreligious doctrine, promote or discriminate against a particular set of religious beliefs or nonbeliefs, or promote or discriminate against religion or non-religion.”

Although the bill does not cite the scientific theory of evolution, or the faith-based doctrine of creationism, it was quickly interpreted as “anti-evolution” by critics.

The measure is similar to bills that have been presented nationwide; they are sometimes dubbed “academic freedom” bills or “teach the controversy” bills.

Only two have passed — one in Louisiana in 2008, the other in Tennessee in 2012, upon which Bell based his bill’s language. But in Tennessee’s measure, biological evolution, global warming, the chemical origins of life, and human cloning were singled out as “controversial.” They were also mentioned originally in the Louisiana measure.

Bell told The Recorder HB 207 is not intended to call the theory of evolution into question, nor encourage teaching religious beliefs in the classroom. His proposal does not mention any religious doctrine or spe- cific scientific theory.

Some educators, he said, become anxious when classroom dialogue tends toward controversial matters, and they tend to cut such conversations off because they worry about reactions from superintendents or school board members.

Bell said controversies, as he sees them, surround topics like evolution and global warming. “Some people accept global warming, some don’t. You can’t discount everything; it’s all theory at this point.”

HB 207, he said, is intended to give teachers protection when classroom conversations turn to “controversial” scientific theories. Bell stressed the measure is not designed to encourage teachers to take discussions in such directions. Instead, the intention is to create an environment where teachers feel more comfortable talking about such issues. “This is meant to promote that free flowing exchange of ideas,” he said, “but there is no specific science or controversy (mentioned) in the bill.”

He has heard from several in the scientific field who are concerned about the proposal, and how it might affect the proper teaching of scientific methods. “It’s hard to argue with them,” Bell said, “but the intent (of the bill) is to make sure we have free flowing, unplanned discussions.”

Glenn Branch, Deputy Director of the National Center for Science Education, said, “These bills have been consistently and vehemently opposed by practically every national scientific and science teaching organization.

“The rhetoric of these bills is speciously attractive, appealing to values of open inquiry and the like,” he added. “In fact, though, they would in effect permit science teachers with idiosyncratic opinions to teach anything they pleased — proponents of creationism and climate change denial are the usual intended beneficiaries of such bills — and prevent responsible educational authorities from intervening.”

Therefore, teachers enamored of “crank” theories like creationism, climate change denial, geocentrism, flat-earthism, vaccine denial, homeopathy, perpetual motion, or others could teach them in class “confident that their administrators couldn’t interfere,” Branch said. “After all, they could claim that in doing so, they’re simply helping their students to understand the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of evolution, climate science, heliocentrism, etc., so the administration would, under the law, be helpless to interfere. Note that there is no discussion in (Bell’s bill) of how to resolve conflicts like this, leaving teachers and administrators without any guidance as to how to navigate the new legal landscape.”

Supporters of bills like HB 207 allege that some educators are fearful about teaching scientific controversies or have been persecuted for doing so. However, Branch said, “They don’t actually offer any evidence.”

There never has been a documented problem, Branch added.

“It might also be noted that Virginia’s state science standards already promote critical thinking throughout science education. Virginia’s standards earned a grade of A- from the last evaluation of state science standards by the Fordham Foundation in its 2012 evaluation of states. So, what need is there for HB 207?”

Bell agrees there doesn’t appear to be any big problem for science teachers in Virginia, and if his proposal isn’t necessary, “that will probably determine the fate of the bill … I don’t like its chances, not this year.”

A number of religious freedom groups, civil rights and science teacher organizations are gearing up to oppose the bill. One of those is the Jewish Community Relations Council. The council’s Debra Linick, in her push for others to oppose the measure, said, “Though creationism and evolution are not directly mentioned, this bill is similar to efforts seen no less than 50 times in 17 states in the past decade that open science classes to fringe lectures and potential costly lawsuits. Only Louisiana and Tennessee have passed such legislation — in both cases, over the protests of state and national organizations of scientists and of science teachers. A call for the repeal of Louisiana’s law has been supported by over 70 Nobel laureates.”

Further, she added, “Courts have long established that creationism is not appropriate to be considered alongside evolution. From the Supreme Court’s 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard case striking down the teaching of creationism in Louisiana to the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case, courts have consistently ruled that Intelligent Design is not science and, as teaching based in religion, it is not constitutionally permitted in schools. In a sharp public rebuke to creationism in science class, all eight members of the Dover Area school board who supported the law lost their seats in the following election. The case cost the district $1 million in damages awarded to the plaintiffs. Don’t allow Virginia schools to be dragged down this path.”

Bell accepts creationism in his personal belief system, and is not convinced the theory of evolution has been scientifically upheld, but he doesn’t believe creationism should be taught in public school systems. “My gut tells me that’s not the best place for it. There are a lot of things we do better teaching at home and in church.”

HB 207 has been assigned to the House Education Subcommittee on Elementary and Secondary Education Jan. 10.

Virtual learning

HB 324 is another of Bell’s proposals he’d like to see gain traction this year. The bill establishes the Board of the Virginia Virtual School “as a policy agency in the executive branch of state government for the purpose of governing the online educational programs and services offered to students enrolled in the Virginia Virtual School. The Secretary of Education is responsible for such agency. The 13-member Board is given operational control of the School and assigned powers and duties. The bill requires the School to be open to any school-age person in the Commonwealth and provide an educational program meeting the Standards of Quality for grades kindergarten through 12.”

“Every year, we’ve tweaked this,” Bell said. “I am always an advocate for expanding virtual teaching… and I’m not sure we’ve resolved the funding aspect, but this is a work in progress.”

Bell added, “My whole goal is to make sure all kids, especially in places like Highland, whether or not they choose (online classes) all have the same opportunity. We’ve made progress in this area, and it’s (virtual learning) going to be a wave of the future. You will always have those pockets of places where kids can’t get certain classes (except online).”

It has been assigned to the education subcommittee on education reform in the House.

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