Science Education Under Attack—Politics

So far I’ve stayed away from discussing politics in these posts because, like religion, it’s a kind of “third rail,” something that if you touch, it’s going to hurt you. But on the other hand, it’s the elephant in the room. Between the federal Department of Education and state legislatures and education departments or boards, education funding, and the politics that comes with it, is bound to have a role. It’s simply unavoidable.

It’s also nearly impossible to take a politically neutral stance on the issue, and although I’m going to try to thread that needle I don’t expect to fully succeed. The hole in the needle gets even narrower when the role religion plays in some politicians’ beliefs gets factored in.

History and Politics

A twisted, two-ended red pencil
Image courtesy FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

According to a Wikipedia article, the federal government has had an office or department with a specific interest in education since 1867, although until the creation of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) in 1953, it rarely and only briefly had cabinet-level status. In 1979, HEW was split into the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education. Then and since, Republican federal legislators and even presidents have opposed the federal department and have repeatedly tried but failed to eliminate it.

Programs and laws like “Common Core” and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) initially started with bipartisan support. The Common Core set of math and English language educational standards was developed in 2010 under the auspices of the National Governors Association, a bipartisan group of state governors.

Some conservative federal and state legislators who believed strongly in local control saw Common Core as a federal intrusion into what local school districts should be deciding, including what to teach and how to teach it, even though, as a set of standards, Common Core only established what skill levels students should reach by certain grades, not how schools and teachers would help them get there.

Similarly, after the Obama Administration tried to tie federal education funding to school performance under some NCLB requirements, conservatives objected to what they saw as another example of federal overreach and intrusion into local decision-making. NCLB was eventually scrapped.

I’m not here to argue how much or how little influence or control the federal government should have in local decisions. It is interesting to note, however, that some of the same state legislators and regulators who argue against federal intrusion, as they see it, have no problem imposing their own rules, standards, and beliefs on their state’s school districts. Attempts to end, directly or by stealth, the teaching of evolution, for example, happen this way. It’s also how state funding for schools gets cut, as conservative legislators seek to curtail or completely block what they see as the teaching of “Liberal values” that they don’t share. The hypocrisy is as depressing as it is obvious.

Political Action

The poorly-paid teachers in some states, Arizona among them, finally decided they’d had enough this year and have forced governors and state legislatures to substantially increase school funding. But how long will this effort, and its effects last? The #RedforEd movement had a moment in the sun this spring, in a few states, but there’s little sign so far that it will have any far-reaching effects.

Some teachers have decided to run for office in their state legislatures, almost always as Democrats, in states where the legislatures are Republican controlled. Single-issue candidates have a hard time winning general elections, even if they succeed in the primaries. And if they are elected, they have to deal with the whole range of issues a legislature faces, including the political and budget trade-offs that have to be made. Or aren’t made, and then nothing gets done. Or, if it’s large enough, the majority party runs roughshod over the powerless minority. These teachers run that risk and could end up doing little more than shouting into the wind.

Running as Republicans might seem at first to be an alternative strategy. The challenge of winning the primary vote is even greater, though, given who votes in the primaries and state rules that often limit who can vote in them.

There’s another factor at work here. Partisans of every stripe see every issue through the lens of their political leanings. The responses to information about global climate change are the most obvious example. The farther right one goes on the political spectrum, the more likely it is that a person, whether a legislator, think-tanker, or ordinary citizen, will see climate change as a Nancy Pelosi/Hillary Clinton/Bernie Sanders/pick-your-most-hated-Democrat-created pseudo-crisis whose only purpose is to increase government intrusion into the lives of individual citizens. Or that scientists are making it all up for their own purposes. The facts and the science get lost in the arguments over who believes what and what their motives are.

The impact of this kind of attitude should be clear. If science doesn’t matter, if scientists are seen to be political hacks who bend their conclusions to fit their politics, then kids can be discouraged from studying science, or may not even be able to study it in full due to politically-imposed restrictions, and thus may be discouraged from exploring science as their adult vocation.

What’s Next?

So what’s the solution? Is there one?

There’s no silver bullet, no single approach that’s going to solve everything. There are, however, certain things that can help. For one, the #RedforEd movement needs to continue through the fall election season and into next year, when state legislatures meet to build their states’ budgets. And it needs to continue far beyond the spring of 2019. Science teachers need to stand up not only for decent pay and adequate resources, but for the ability to teach real science, not pseudo-science.

For another, scientists need to get out of their labs, come in from their field studies, and talk with ordinary people, in terms and time-frames they can understand, about how science directly affects their lives every day. For some fields, like cosmology, particle physics, and fundamental mathematics, this is tough, but it needs to be done.

In both of these cases, the educators and scientists need to recognize that, especially when they’re speaking with some politicians (and they need to know in advance who these people are), the scientific facts don’t matter much, if at all. What matters is that politician’s world view: how they see the world, what factors are important to them, including perhaps what their religion tells them is true. Do these politicians, deep down, believe that science is bad because it intrudes into God’s realm? Does it explore things that man should not know? Or does it simply contradict what the Bible says, or what they think it says?

Addressing those kinds of attitudes and beliefs will be an even greater challenge than explaining cosmology to a shoe salesman. But it must be done if science education is going to not only survive, but thrive, in America’s schools.

Your Thoughts

I may be taking a risk by asking for your thoughts, but I can’t hide that Comments box below. What do you think? Is politics, particularly “conservative” politics, naturally inimical to science education?

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