Academic Anarchy

Academic Anarchy

By LIAM JULIAN - The Tampa Tribune - 3/28/2008 - original
The evolution debate in Florida grows tiresome, and not only because Ben Stein - he of unfailing monotone - is now involved, but because it keeps rehashing the same, tired points albeit in different ways.

Stein trotted to Tallahassee the other day to offer a preview of his forthcoming documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which chronicles the supposed classroom suppression by "Big Science" of any theory that competes with evolution. Lawmakers were allowed to see the movie; the press and public were not.

Stein was also hanging around the capitol to promote the "Academic Freedom Act," sponsored by Republican Sen. Ronda Storms and Rep. Alan Hays. The bill would allow teachers the right "to objectively present scientific information relevant to the full range of scientific views" of evolution. Stein said at a news conference, "This bill is not about teaching intelligent design. It's about freedom of speech."

Casey Luskin - who works for the Discovery Institute, which supports intelligent design - echoed Stein's sentiments and said the bill would protect only teachers who choose to educate students about scientific objections to evolution. Luskin, however, believes that intelligent design is science.

There they go again. If this bill passes, of course, the tedious debate will revive: Is intelligent design science or isn't it?

Let's avoid this already exhausted topic, though, and examine other reasons why making the "Academic Freedom Act" a law is a lousy idea for Florida's students and schools.

To start, Stein's claim that the bill protects "freedom of speech" deserves close consideration.

Teachers are already free to say whatever they please to a roomful of 8-year-olds, just as I'm free to say whatever I please around my office. If I casually observe that my boss is a philistine afflicted by halitosis, or if a Florida history instructor mentions that his school's principal is a "lump of foul deformity," neither of us will wind up in a dark, damp jail-cell. We will both, however, almost surely be fired (although public-school teachers are protected by powerful unions, so perhaps the history instructor keeps his job).

What Stein really meant to say is that the bill insulates teachers from being held accountable for their speech. One wonders whether Florida's citizens really desire that public-school teachers have that type of protection, one to which few private-sector workers are entitled (and for good reason).

The "Academic Freedom Act" is an insult to principals, who will see their autonomy over school functions further diluted if the bill becomes law. Unlike most managers in the private sector, public-school principals are not allowed to exercise authority over their schools and their staffs. They cannot, for example, hire and fire employees - a basic management tool - without bearing sundry red-tape encumbrances.

This bill only adds more of that red tape. Principals would have no way to discipline teachers who are, say, presenting to students inaccurate scientific information ("who says it's inaccurate?") or deviating from the prescribed, state standards.

Principals are accountable to the government for the academic performance of their students, and yet the government is proposing another bill that will severely hamper the management flexibility of principals. This is accountability without autonomy, and it's a recipe for failure.

Here's another disturbing piece of the "Academic Freedom Act": Students may not be penalized in any way for subscribing "to a particular position or view regarding biological or chemical evolution." So when little Johnny receives an "F" for an essay in which he has proclaimed the earth was created in a week, little Johnny's teacher better watch out - the lawyers are coming.

In this particular case, Floridians should be especially wary. Academic-freedom bills, of all stripes, are generally terrible things. They proclaim to protect a persecuted class, but rarely is that verifiable.

The Storms and Hays proposal purports to shield public-school teachers who are vilified for questioning evolution's tenets. But a significant number of such teachers simply doesn't exist.

And what's more, public-school educators, especially the most incompetent ones, already receive from their unions more job protection than they need or deserve.

The "Academic Freedom Act" is thoroughly flawed and is deserving of deft dismissal.