Legislators Halt Consideration Of Controversial Science Standards

Mar 20, 2014

Right before the close of the session, the Wyoming Legislature slipped a small amendment into the budget bill that’s proving to have some big implications. The footnote prohibits the State Board of Education from considering a set of national science education standards that it had been reviewing for more than a year, and as Wyoming Public Radio’s Stephanie Joyce reports, it raises questions about whose role it is to establish those standards.

STEPHANIE JOYCE: The budget amendment that passed the House of Representatives was broader than the one eventually signed into law, but Goshen County Representative Matt Teeters says the intent was the same.

MATT TEETERS: My original amendment was an attempt to stop the Next Generation Science Standards by just stopping any sort of science adoption for the next two years.

JOYCE: The Next Generation Science Standards were developed by a consortium of 20-odd states and have been adopted in ten. Standards guide what students should know and be able to do in each grade level, but they’re different from curriculum, which is set by local school boards. Teeters says the Next Generation standards are flawed in multiple ways.

TEETERS: The standards themselves, I believe, are structurally poor standards. And that’s a separate issue I think from the fact that the science standards contain a lot of controversial science that I think is way too specific for what our standards should contain.

JOYCE: Among other things, the standards teach evolution and that climate change is caused by humans. Teeters says those are by no means settled subjects, and that the standards, if they include them at all, should give equal weight to alternative perspectives.

TEETERS: If you look at the implication of man-made global warming and carry it out to its finality, and you begin the process of trying to limit carbon emissions dramatically in this country, I think you’re going to cripple this economy.

JOYCE: Teeters says in his opinion, the amendment addresses those concerns without tying the hands of the Board of Education.

TEETERS: I think they can draw from the standards, I think they just have to be careful about rubber-stamping them.

PETE GOSAR: I kind of take offense to that.

JOYCE: That’s Board of Education member Pete Gosar. He says the Board never “rubber-stamps” standards -- including these ones. Gosar says the Board had been going back and forth with its science committee about how the standards could be improved, and he’s worried about the message the amendment sends to the people on that committee.

GOSAR: They say well, you know, 'We wasted a year and a half and spent a lot of time and we thought we did the right thing and that can be undone in an afternoon in Cheyenne.’ And so I wonder, who will sit on these committees anymore? If we only get the people that want to just push out last year’s standards, does that help move education forward?

JOYCE: Not only that, Gosar says it sets a bad precedent for legislative intervention in standards-setting.

GOSAR: “Science or social studies or English… [it] isn’t up for a popularity contest. And once it becomes that, then you make your educational system... not as good as it could be. And I’m concerned.”

JOYCE: Board Chair Ron Micheli is also concerned about what the Legislature’s intervention means for the process of setting standards. He says he wasn’t even aware the amendment was added to the budget bill until it was signed into law.

RON MICHELI: I don’t mean to be critical of them.  I mean they’ve heard from their constituents, they know what’s in those science standards and they’re trying to voice those concerns. I’m a 16-year veteran of the Legislature. So often it happens that the last night, the last moment, with a footnote to the budget bill, perhaps it wasn’t as well thought out as it ought to have been.

JOYCE: But some politicians who endorsed the amendment insist it’s not a sign that the Legislature lacks faith in the Board of Education or its process. In a press conference about the budget bill, Governor Matt Mead downplayed its significance.

MATT MEAD: I think the Legislature has, as I do, faith that the Board of Education will be able to set whatever standards, hopefully high standards, and I think that they felt more concerned that they would be stuck with standards that is not [sic] acceptable to the Board or acceptable to the citizens of Wyoming.

JOYCE: "What standards would be acceptable to Wyoming?" a reporter asked. Mead deferred to the Board of Education. The Board is consulting with its attorney to figure out what exactly it’s allowed to consider.