The old monkey fight again
The old monkey fight again
OPINION: Columns
By MARK LANE - Daytona Beach New-Journal - 12/12/2007 - original
Florida has long been pulled in opposite directions on public education.

On one hand, every governor since LeRoy Collins has declared that improving Florida's public schools and universities is key to diversifying and improving the Florida economy.

On the other hand, no session of the Legislature would be complete without a bill a seeking to clamp down on what teachers or professors are teaching and professing.

It's as though we love education; it's just teachers and their ideas we don't like. And don't even get us started on professors.

It's a traditional Southern split that now feels even more pronounced. Tallahassee can't decide if we're Yahooville or Tomorrowland.

The state spends millions to attract high-tech industries. Gov. Charlie Crist hopes we'll be a center for the post-petroleum economy and in his "State of the State" address this year asked the Legislature for $20 million for stem-cell research. Former Gov. Jeb Bush expressed the hope that Florida would become a national center -- no, an international center -- of the bio-tech industry.

While these initiatives went forward, the Legislature also considered bills banning funding for embryonic stem-cell research and a measure I call the "Sue-Your-Prof Bill" but actually titled "The Academic Freedom Bill of Rights." It would have allowed you to sue your professors if they hurt your feelings by discussing evolution.

And once more the state is in a fight over evolution, creationism and its big-city cousin, "intelligent design."

Florida is in the process of approving new science standards, so expect this divide to be pronounced in 2008.

The current standards don't mention the word "evolution." They talk about "biological changes over time."

This was a rather too-clever attempt to head off controversy. It's not Yahooville because you can still discuss the concept generally. But it's not Tomorrowland, because you're talking about the central organizing concept of modern biology in a whisper, as though it were a relative who ran off with the circus.

Educators have been unimpressed with Florida's science standards. A 2005 analysis by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute gave us a failing grade. "The superficiality of the treatment of evolutionary biology alone justifies the grade 'F,' but there is in any case scant mitigation elsewhere," it said.

Ouch. And from a group that had been cheering on former Gov. Bush's education program.

The new standards, however, are getting pretty good reviews and would put us on the road to Tomorrowland.

Naturally, they are under attack.

Individual school boards are denouncing them and one state Board of Education member already has promised to oppose them over the evolution issue.

Will the Legislature jump in next year? Normally, I'd expect they would in a heartbeat. But the so-called values voters already have a pretty full plate starting with an anti-gay marriage amendment likely to be on the ballot next year and gambling expansion to oppose.

Most legislators understand that laws mandating creationism, intelligent design, or "teaching the controversy" make our economic Tomorrowland sales pitch sound silly. And that's bad for business.

Florida already gets enough ridicule without hosting a monkey trial. I'll be anxious to see if we've evolved.