Louisiana lawmakers ventured into some especially controversial terrain in their recently concluded session with approval of a $10 million voucher program for New Orleans and of a bill that could lead to changes in how public schools teach evolution.
The Louisiana Science Education Act, which Gov. Bobby Jindal signed into law June 26, allows school districts to use supplemental classroom materials that help students “analyze, critique, and review” scientific theories, including “evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.”
A day earlier, Gov. Jindal signed a measure that would permit roughly 1,500 New Orleans students in low-performing public schools to receive tuition vouchers worth up to about $6,300 each to attend secular or religious private schools this fall. The voucher plan was considered a top priority for the Republican governor.
The state legislature also approved a final budget for fiscal 2009 that provides $3.72 billion in state spending for K-12 education, up about $70 million, or 2 percent, from the budget year that ended June 30.
At press time last week, Gov. Jindal had not yet signed the state budget package, which overall was set at about $30 billion. He had drawn widespread attention after reversing course, in the face of strong public pressure, and vetoing a legislative pay raise passed as part of a supplemental-spending bill. Lawmakers had approved a plan to roughly double their pay.
Science Bill Criticized
The science education measure, which drew overwhelming support in the legislature, attracted national attention, including criticism from leading science groups.
The new law says that while teachers still are expected to teach the material presented in standard textbooks supplied by their school systems, they may supplement those with other materials to examine scientific theories “in an objective manner,” unless the materials are prohibited by the state.
The law specifically says that it is not meant to promote any religious doctrine or belief. But several scientific organizations believe it will do just that.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, in urging Gov. Jindal to veto the bill, cited the vast amount of scientific evidence backing up evolution and its centrality to students’ understanding of science.
“There is virtually no controversy about evolution among researchers, many of whom like you, are deeply religious,” AAAS President Alan I. Leshner wrote in a letter to the governor.
Gov. Jindal, who took office in January, has seen his national profile rise in recent months, having been mentioned as a potential running mate for Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive GOP nominee for president.
The governor’s signing of the science education measure was described in a list of 75 bills that he announced he had approved on June 26, with a one-sentence statement that made no mention of evolution.
The impact of the Louisiana law will likely depend on the actions taken by school districts and individual teachers. Opponents have predicted that it could prompt lawsuits, if schools or educators seek to denigrate evolution in favor of religiously based views of life’s development, such as creationism, or if they attempt to promote “intelligent design.”
Intelligent design is the belief, rejected by the mainstream scientific community, that biological evidence suggests that humans and other living things have been shaped by an unnamed creator.
Asked for his views on teaching evolution during a June 15 appearance on the CBS News program “Face the Nation,” Gov. Jindal said: “I don’t think students learn by us withholding information from them. Some want only to teach intelligent design; some only want to teach evolution. I think both views are wrong, as a parent.”
In a statement last month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana said that “if necessary,” it would file lawsuits to “ensure that the children of Louisiana are educated in the way that they deserve and that the Constitutions of the United States and the state of Louisiana require.”
With passage of the measure giving some New Orleans families access to private school vouchers this fall, Louisiana joins six other states with voucher programs of some sort in place.
Gov. Jindal pushed hard for the program, which drew strong opposition from some Louisiana education groups, including the state teachers’ unions and the school boards’ association.
The program targets students from low-performing public schools, and participating families’ income may not exceed 250 percent of federal poverty guidelines. A family of four earning up to $53,000 will be eligible. The law specifies that if a given school has more voucher applicants than slots, it must use a lottery to determine admission.
An estimated maximum voucher of $6,300 will go to K-3 students in regular education; the maximum will be higher for students with disabilities. The program will gradually expand beyond K-3 to accommodate voucher recipients as they advance from grade to grade.
The executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association said recently that his group was considering a lawsuit, but no such action had been taken as of last week.
On another front, state lawmakers provided half of what Gov. Jindal requested for a new alternative-compensation program for teachers.
A version of this article appeared in the July 16, 2008 edition of Education Week