The State House

The Alabama State House

Daniel Gaddy/The Anniston Star/file

Alexandra Woolbright

Teachers and students could soon find themselves free to debate the strengths and weaknesses of the theory of evolution in public schools across Alabama if a bill introduced to the House this month becomes law.

Some critics, however, find the bill unnecessary because the debate is already happening in many classrooms all over Alabama.

Sponsored by Rep. Mack Butler, R-Rainbow City, House Bill 592 would allow teachers and students in K-12 public schools to “explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about scientific subjects.” A provision of the bill would also “allow teachers to help students understand, analyze, critique and review the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of all existing scientific theories covered in a science course.”

Butler called the bill one that “doesn’t promote anyone’s agenda” and said it would foster open and honest debate in science classrooms all over the state.

“There are some teachers who are uncomfortable teaching evolution as fact, and some are scared to tiptoe around alternate theories,” he said.

Yet, how local educators are currently teaching students wouldn’t drastically change.

“I’m a little puzzled why we have to create a law stating that. They are teaching evolution theory, as well as creation, so it’s currently taking place now,” said Mike Newell, director of operations for the Jacksonville Board of Education.

Many teachers in the state say they are already allowing students to explore various theories, including both creationism and evolution.

For the past 35 years, Michelle Cleveland, a biology teacher at Bob Jones High School in Madison, has allowed students to discuss how the theory of evolution has changed over time. In such a large school, strictly teaching about how one religion interprets evolution isn’t possible. “We have a diverse population,” Cleveland said.

She has students draw numbers to divide into a group, and then research the theory of evolution throughout different parts of history. “They have to look for what evolution was at the time, choose an opponent and proponent for each side, research those people and how it affected education,” she said.

Addressing how evolution has changed education is something  Molly Wheeler, a Biology teacher at Sulligent High School in Lamar County, commonly does.

“Typically, I would present Darwin’s theory. Then we do a debate on ‘what do you personally believe on this,’” Wheeler said.

Though she encourages debate, it’s not something she has received pressure to do in a small, rural school. “We can teach whatever we want, as far as creationism and the Bible. We don’t have anyone who would question us,” she said.

The ability to teach without question is what many critics fear most.

The language of the bill is identical to one passed in Tennessee, which was met with opposition at the state and national levels in 2011. Many scientific organizations, including leaders of the National Center for Science Education and the American Institute of Biological Sciences, openly opposed the passage of the bill in Tennessee. They said the bill made teaching science difficult and argued any controversy regarding the issue is only political.

“There is material that does not belong in the classroom, but laws like this change what a good science education looks like,” said Joshua Rosenau, policy and program director for the National Center for Science Education.

“Evolution is recognized as the foundation of modern biology. To single it out as if it’s scientifically controversial is misleading and encourages teachers to skip out on this concept that students need if they want to be doctors or even patients in the 21st century,” Rosenau said.

If passed, the bill would also provide opportunities for discussion of human cloning.

Though human cloning is not a part of the current science curriculum for many schools, Butler believed it was important to include. “In the development of critical thinking skills, everything needs to be on the table,” he said.

Rosenau argued the bill is unnecessary because there are no known examples of teachers living in Alabama who are facing discrimination for their teaching methods. “It’s a solution in search of a problem, and that’s not a great way for the legislature to spend their time,” he said.

The bill would allow for discussion of any theory and would not promote or discriminate against a particular set of beliefs or a religion.

The bill was introduced to the House April 30 and has been assigned to the committee on Education Policy.

It has already garnered attention in the House with nine representatives supporting the bill as co-sponsors, including Rep. Becky Nordgren, R-Gadsden and Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston.

Though the bill has gained support by many, it appears not everyone is well-informed about what the bill would do for science education.

When asked to give his thoughts on the bill, Rep. Allen Farley, R-McCalla, responded that he had not read it yet, despite choosing to show his support as a co-sponsor.

Ultimately, Butler argued the bill would create more “well-rounded students and teachers.”

“There is animosity to anything Christian. We are getting so secular and hostile toward Christianity. I’m just trying to bring back a little balance,” Butler said.