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Opponents of 'scientific fact' bill warn of drastic consequences for public schools

Rebecca Dockter, city attorney for Helena, testifies against Senate Bill 235 during a hearing on Monday. (Photo: MPAN)
Rebecca Dockter, city attorney for Helena, testifies against Senate Bill 235 during a hearing on Monday. (Photo: MPAN)
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A Senate committee hearing on Monday saw heated debate over a controversial bill that could mean big changes for science in Montana schools.

Senate Bill 235, sponsored by State Sen. Daniel Emrich (R-Great Falls), would establish requirements for science instruction in public schools.

The bill would prohibit teaching anything not considered scientific fact. SB 235 defines “scientific fact” as an “indisputable and repeatable observation of a natural phenomenon.”

The bill’s sponsor argued this doesn’t block teaching scientific theories, but an amendment may be needed to allow certain courses, including some Advanced Placement classes, to be taught.

“That could be a potential conflict with this bill,” said Emrich at the Senate Education and Cultural Resources hearing. “It may need to be tailored down to actually address that fact for limiting it so it doesn’t go into the high schools and affect them as more of a transition to the college environment.”

There was one proponent to the bill at the hearing, who likened the teaching of established scientific theories such as evolution to children as fraud that goes against the bible.

“There’s not one person in the room that I’m looking at right now, and there’s not one person I’ve ever seen or known of that was there when any of these events supposedly occurred,” said Patrick Gould, a law professor currently working in South Korea. “No one was there with Big Bang, no one was there with creation. No one was there when the first bird flew. No one was there with any of these events.”

Dozens of opponents pushed back saying the bill would effectively ban much of the current curriculum.

“Does that mean the theory of relativity can’t be taught? Gravity can’t be taught?” said Becky Dockter, the city attorney for Helena. “I can’t observe gravity. I can feel its effects from what I now know is gravity, because my science education taught me that was gravity, but I can’t actually observe it.”

“Much of the science curriculum in the Montana science standards center around process and analysis and being able to understand how science works,” said Jenny Murnane Butcher, a former science teacher who now serves as deputy director of Montanans Organized for Education. “That would be limited if we could only teach scientific fact. This bill also says that it is intended to be strictly interpreted, so that would severely limit discussion in classrooms and the ability of teachers to encourage critical thinking skills.”

“It would put students like me at a disadvantage if we were to pursue a career in science, because I would not have learned many of the concepts my peers had,” said Greysen Jakes, a seventh grader at Helena Middle School who said it is his dream to be involved in the sciences. “Not only would other students have an advantage on me in college, but people who can’t go to college would never have the opportunity to learn any common scientific theories if they aren’t taught in primary school. Also, many of the scientific facts recognized in this bill started as theories, theories that will not be taught if bill 235 were to pass.”

Other opponents include the Blackfeet Tribe, School Administrators for Montana, Coalition of Advocates for Montana Public Schools, the Board of Public Education, North East Rural Schools, the Montana Federation of Public Employees, Montana Conservation Voters, Montana Audubon and a large handful of citizens, many of whom are teachers or students, speaking in their personal capacity.

The three informational witnesses were State Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, senior manager of the Teaching and Learning Department for the Office of Public Instruction Chris Noel, retired teacher and school administrator Sharon Patton-Griffin.

In response to a question from State Sen. Susan Webber (D-Browning) about potential cost to the state, Noel said the bill’s passage would mean significant revisions to their standards, likely triggering a new standards adoption in science.

“I have no idea what the cost would come out of that fiscal review, but I am not aware of any standards adoptions that have not required cost,” said Noel, who added that adoption takes multiple years.

In closing on the bill, Emrich admitted it could lead to a large fiscal note because science standards are not currently under review. He said he would like to look at changing the implementation date for the legislation.

The legal note attached to the bill states it may violate the state constitution by taking powers away from the state Board of Education, an assessment that Emrich disagrees with.

“I think this is a healthy discussion that has a purpose in actually taking and making the scientific community, the educators, evaluate their curriculum and actually making sure it actually meets the scientific standard that was set forth, well, generations before I was on this Earth,” said Emrich at the end of the hearing.

We’ll follow this bill and let you know what happens.

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