New Florida Law Lets Residents Challenge School Textbooks
Keith Flaugh is a retired IBM executive living in Naples, Fla., and a man with a mission. He describes it as "getting the school boards to recognize ... the garbage that's in our textbooks."
Flaugh helped found Florida Citizens' Alliance, a conservative group that fought unsuccessfully to stop Florida from signing on to Common Core educational standards.
More recently, the group has turned its attention to the books being used in Florida's schools. A new state law, developed and pushed through by Flaugh's group, allows parents, and any residents, to challenge the use of textbooks and instructional materials they find objectionable via an independent hearing.
Flaugh finds many objections with the books used by Florida students. Two years ago, members of the alliance did what he calls a "deep dive" into 60 textbooks.
"We found them to be full of political indoctrination, religious indoctrination, revisionist history and distorting our founding values and principles, even a significant quantity of pornography," he says.
The pornography, Flaugh says, was in literature and novels such as Angela's Ashes, A Clockwork Orange and books by author Toni Morrison, which were in school libraries or on summer reading lists.
Flaugh says he's just as concerned about how textbooks describe U.S. history and our form of government. "I spent over 20 hours with a book called 'United States Government,'" he says.
He found more than 80 places where he believes the textbook was wrong or showed bias, beginning with the cover. Its subtitle is "Our Democracy."
"We're not a democracy, we're a constitutional republic," Flaugh says.
He believes many textbooks downplay the importance of individual liberties and promote a reliance on federal authority, and what he calls "a nanny state mentality."
Members of Florida Citizens' Alliance have other concerns, including how some textbooks discuss Islam. Others take issue with science textbooks and how they deal with two topics in particular: evolution and climate change.
Flaugh says the law, which was signed by the governor on June 26, is intended to make sure scientific theories are presented in a balanced way.
"There will be people out there that argue that creationism versus Darwinism are facts. They're both theories," he says.
Science educators say that's a familiar argument and one that fundamentally misunderstands the nature of a scientific theory.
"In everyday conversation, a theory is a hunch or guess," says Glenn Branch, with the National Center for Science Education. "That's not how scientists use it. For scientists, a theory is a systematic explanation for a range of natural phenomena."
Cell theory, gravitational theory, and evolutionary theory are all evidence-based, well-tested explanations of aspects of the natural world.
Another member of Florida Citizens' Alliance, David Bolduc, is most concerned about protecting the U.S. Constitution. But he also sees bias in how textbooks deal with science, including climate change.
"It seems to me it's very slanted in one direction," Bolduc says. "That man is at fault, and that it's definitely happening and that it's real. You know the Al Gore lines." Bolduc also believes parents should be able to challenge how textbooks deal with evolution.
In Florida and nationally, it's those last two topics — climate change and evolution — that have sparked the greatest interest. Branch says the bill clearly was formed with those issues in mind.
"In affidavits submitted to the legislature in support of the bill, they said, 'we complained that they were teaching evolution. We complained that they were teaching climate change and they wouldn't listen to us. So that's why we need this new law,'" he says.
Under the law, school districts will still have the final say. Even so, some worry the law will have a chilling effect.
Brandon Haught, a high school environmental science teacher and a member of Florida Citizens for Science, says "a science teacher might feel like, 'argh, I've got all this heat coming down on all of us teachers. Maybe we should just not teach it as strongly, maybe just briefly cover it and move on.'"
Florida's Department of Education is developing guidelines for school districts on how to comply with the law. The state school board association says one thing is clear — more challenges to the textbooks adopted by Florida schools are likely.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.