Teaching creationism is widespread in U.S. public schools

January 28, 2014 • 11:30 am

Twelve days ago anti-creationism activist Zack Kopplin wrote a long piece for Slate about how Texas’s “charter schools” (special schools that are supported by state money), particularly those using the Responsive Education Solutions system, are openly teaching not only creationism (using, of course, materials provided by Responsive Ed), but a grossly distorted right-wing view of history. Have a look at that article to see some egregious examples; suffice it to say these schools teach lies to 17,000 students in 65 schools, and get about $82 million in taxpayer money.

It is, of course, illegal to teach creationism in public schools, for it violates the First Amendment mandating the separation of church and state. Court after court has supported this stand, but the schools persist simply because bringing a court case requires a student and his/her parent to complain to a legal organization such as the ACLU or the Freedom from Religion foundation. And to do that in a place like Texas makes you a pariah.

Now Slate has published a complementary map showing where in the U.S. publicly-funded schools either teach creationism or are permitted by law to do so.  Each dot on the map below represents one such school, and the map at the Slate site is interactive, so you can place your mouse over the dot and identify the school. Note that both Tennessee and Louisiana are ridden with such schools (the color of the dots represents the type of funding supporting creationism; green represents places where teaching creationism of some sort is legal). In Louisiana, for example, they have a law allowing teachers to use supplementary materials to analyze and criticize “controversial” science like evolution and global warming, and Tennessee likewise has a “teach the strengths and weaknesses of scientific theories” law.

The many green dots in Louisiana and Tennesee are mostly just regular high schools (there are more), and many don’t teach creationism, so this is a bit of an exaggeration. In Texas, however, the red dots are Responsive Ed schools that can and do teach creationism.  The orange dots in other places are largely Christian schools that are publicly funded and do teach creationism:

creationist schools

Creationist legend

Note that Ohio, Indiana, and Florida are rife with creationism taught at taxpayer expense. As we learned this year, Indiana, at least, is a hotbed of religious conservatism.  Note as well that the number of dots surely underestimate of the number of schools teaching students lies about science, since many schools may not have been investigated. Finally, realize that every single one of the red and orange dots, and perhaps many of the green ones, is a school that violates the U.S. Constitution. Perhaps you’re a parent of a student attending one of these schools, which would entitle you to file a lawsuit. Check it out on the map at Slate if you’re interested.

Here’s the roll of shame, taken directly from the Slate piece. (And thanks to the many readers who brought this to my attention.)

Arkansas: Responsive Education Solutions operates two campuses in Arkansas that use creationist curricula. (See Texas.)

Colorado: At least eight schools in Douglas County teach creationism while participating in the Douglas County Scholarship Program.

Florida: At least 164 schools teach creationism while participating in the state’s tax credit scholarship programs for disabled children and children from low-income families.

Georgia: At least 34 schools teach creationism while participating in the state’s tax credit scholarship program for disabled children.

Indiana: At least 37 schools teach creationism while participating in the state’s voucher program for children from low-income families.

Louisiana: The Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008 allows teachers to use “supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner,” specifically theories regarding “evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning”—in effect, allowing creationist material inside classroom. It’s no coincidence that the Discovery Institute, a creationist think tank that provides such “supplemental textbooks,” helped write the bill, which the American Association for the Advancement of Science described as an “assault against scientific integrity.”

Ohio: At least 20 schools teach creationism while participating in a tax credit scholarship program for children in underperforming public schools.

Oklahoma: At least five schools teach creationism while participating in a tax credit scholarship program for disabled children.

Tennessee: A 2012 state law, like Louisiana’s, permits public school teachers to teach the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of theories that can “cause controversy,” specifically citing evolution, global warming, and cloning, thereby providing legal cover for teachers who want to forward creationist pseudoscience.

Texas: The state’s largest charter program, Responsive Ed, receives $82 million in taxpayer money each year, but that hasn’t stopped its schools from adopting a creationist curriculum that seriously misrepresents the science of evolution. These materials wrongly portray the fossil record and the age of Earth as scientifically controversial, assert that there is a lack of “transitional fossils,” and claim evolution is untestable.

Utah: At least five schools teach creationism while participating in a tax-credit scholarship program for disabled children.

Washington, D.C.: At least three schools teach creationism while participating in a tax-credit scholarship program for children from low-income families.

Wisconsin: At least 15 schools teach creationism while participating in a Milwaukee or Racine voucher programs.

46 thoughts on “Teaching creationism is widespread in U.S. public schools

  1. And somewhat relatedly, just finished reading this, in the current Rolling Stone, about how, in the piece’s most basic form, infusion with the Holy Spirit apparently derailed many young lives in the Midwest (where there are many fine people, too, just to get that in). The lead players are from TX. Altho the piece doesn’t go into their earlier years, I doubt that any of these kids would have fallen into this morass if they hadn’t been preconditioned toward the Hypothetical Haploid.

    1. I love the “hypothetical haploid” and plan to borrow it whenever I can. As one of my professors in graduate school was fond of saying, the H. in Jesus H. Christ stands for haploid!

  2. Interesting incidence of milking programs for “low income” and “disabled children.” As is so common of religion, bilking the masses (taxes) for money and targeting the disadvantaged for conscription.

    1. That jumped out at me too! The typical indoctrination of people who have no choice. Religion, like other dogmas, excels at this! It’s absolutely inexcusable that they should be using funds for disabled and low income children in this way.

          1. I remember my high school biology teacher having to dodge around the issue. She hated having to dodge around these issues, she was no creationist. I remember forming my opinions about evolution right around the same time I went through my little boy, “I like dinosaurs!”-phase. I remember what I was taught in my Sunday school classes, and getting in trouble for suggesting that evolution provides a more complete explanation for why things are the way they are than “God willed it that way.”

            Exhibit A:
            Evolution provided an explanation in the form of:

            * a dynamic for change exists in form
            * animals change throughout history because of
            * bacteria are little animals, most bacteria used to die after being exposed to penicillin, but some strains have developed a resistance to penicillin that never existed before, therefore, something changed

            Assumptions —
            1–> little changes happen every generation
            2–> changes happen because of environmental input

            I liked this a lot more because it made *me* able to derive from assumptions possible conclusions like:

            1 + 2 + “lots of time” –> “big change”

            And after that I could derive a many more possible conclusions. It was beautiful!

            Exhibit B:
            Creationism provided an explanation in the form of:

            * God did it.

            Assumptions —
            1–> God did it
            2–> God did it for “mysterious” reasons

            1 + 2 + “lots of time” –> “Deus Ex Machina” + “I can’t really derive anything with this” + “Ok, I’m really, *really* bored with these assumptions”

            As a little boy, I liked Exhibit A a *lot* more than Exhibit B. But I got into a *lot* more trouble from the Sunday school “authority” figures for saying so. “They” told my parents that I was being disruptive, I told my parents that the teacher was being stupid. My parents apologized to them and after “they” left, my parents told me that I was probably right but I will only make people mad if I tell them they are wrong.

            It took me many years to learn how to interact with people in a reasonably effective way. When it comes to dealing with people, I’m still not the brightest crayon in the box, but I’m better than I was before!

            It was even more irritating when I went to college and I found that the overworked professors also tended to default to, “argument from authority” instead of “argument from reasonable assumptions followed by derivations”. You can find this kind of thing in pure math papers all the time, believe it or not. Of course, they’ll give you a low grade if you make them mad; and low grades make college *significantly* more expensive. Ergo getting high grades in college doesn’t necessarily mean that you can think, rather that you regurgitated the spoon-fed arguments from authority better than your peers.

            Regurgitating spoon-fed arguments from authority better than your peers makes you a much better Eichmann-type-fellow that the authorities in our system can use. It also makes you less likely to notice or complain when you see the ship starting to sink. It also makes it a lot easier for them to throw you under a bridge after “they” do something stupid.

            Then again, building a product and selling it is pretty easy. If you get good at it, you can become free, in a sense. Remember to always argue from the perspective of reason rather than the absent-minded, “two legs goooood, four legs baaaaaaad”.

            1. Oh, here is a piece of advice for those in college and in high school:

              Get high grades. The things are just another barrier, they are pretty easy to surpass if you concentrate on it, and you get more academic scholarships that way. In undergrad, aim for 3.7-4.0, if you can get it.

              The game with high grades is that the are a signalling mechanism that makes getting a college education cheaper. The difference between a high GPA and a low GPA is the difference between paying a few hundred dollars and $20,000/yr. If this stops being the reality of the situation, then college will be out of reach for the middle class.

              I came out of my undergraduate education with less than $500 in debt. Forget prestige, go to the schools that cost the least for you. Otherwise, a degree from a “prestigious” university will teach you how compound interest *really* works.

  3. Why does one have to have a child in one of the schools to bring a lawsuit? Any resident of the state where taxes are being used has his/her rights violated.

    1. Not sure that merely being a resident gives you standing (legal term). And I think that what constitutes standing differs from state to state. Son of Hempenstein, Esq., could probably offer a better discourse on this.

    2. My recollection from Constitutional Law is confirmed by Wikipedia, which says, under “standing(law)”:
      “Prudential limitations
      “Additionally, there are three major prudential (judicially created) standing principles. Congress can override these principles via statute:

      “2. Prohibition of generalized grievances: A plaintiff cannot sue if the injury is widely shared in an undifferentiated way with many people. For example, the general rule is that there is no federal taxpayer standing, as complaints about the spending of federal funds are too remote from the process of acquiring them. Such grievances are ordinarily more appropriately addressed in the representative branches.”
      My guess is that most state courts apply similar principles in cases challenging state tax expenditures.

      1. “Such grievances are ordinarily more appropriately addressed in the representative branches.”

        It has already been addressed in the representative branches. Whenever a legislative branch tried to fund creationism, it has been declared unconstitutional again and again by courts.

    3. Yeah, that does really suck. It would be great if there could be some sort of class action law suit as well as some sort of legislation put in place that could cheaply monitor this kind of activity.

  4. As a Wisconsinite I’m appalled to have my state appear on a map like this. And as a citizen of the US I’m appalled at the entire map.

  5. It’s funny how times change and cultures differ. I went to an international baccalaureate school at which a teacher once said that creationism was a valid theory and got fired after students (and parents) started a petition to get him out…

  6. I wonder how Slate was able to collect these data! It must’ve been a lot of work. I’d love to see a similar map for Canada – we don’t have voucher programs but we do have Catholic schools funded by the government and there are religious universities that accept public funds and I’d be curious to see a comparison.

      1. No, it’s not illegal but it’s questionable and we are constantly trying to stop the public funding of Catholic schools. Just because something is not legal, doesn’t mean it’s right or fair.

  7. What stands out on this map to me is certain non-dot states: Kansas, Alabama, Mississippi, S. Carolina, Kentucky…

      1. Yes, that crossed my mind. Some states have been better at flying under the radar (i.e. not officially sanctioning creationism so they can’t be sued as easily).

    1. My guess is those are “goes without saying” States. This is based on an assumption that the mapped dots are sampled from a spatially continuous density function, which is parsimonious but of course can only be approximate.

  8. I read the wording of the TN legislation when it was being debated and passed. I sent a reasonably strongly worded letter to the relevant committee at the time – which they, naturally, ignored. My reading, however, was that the law as adopted still precluded the teaching of creationism in schools since it only allowed for discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of “scientific” ideas and didn’t suggest discussion of superstition. As such it reinforced the teacher’s existing duties and provided a solution for a problem that never existed (the ability to criticize ideas based upon evidence). It also doesn’t provide any legal cover to the teaching of creationist ideas – although it might appear to superficially (that’s based on my understanding from my science professor position – not a formal legal opinion.)I know that in my own county creationism teaching is strictly forbidden. However, I would assume that it occurs in more rural areas, although I doubt the law was enforced much in those places anyway. These relatively impoverished school districts are of course the ones most likely to end up getting hit by a lawsuit that they can ill afford.

  9. I could not find specific info about Responsive Eds C/ID program outside of the range of the Slate article.
    I did see a link saying they are growing in Arkansas. You can see some of their ‘dots’ on the map in that state. More to come.

  10. Here in Indiana, within the last 36 hours was a State Education Dept. report released about one effect of the vast expansion of the Hoosier State’s school voucher program during the past few years: The big increase in the number of students using/receiving vouchers who never attended public schoools at all.

    When the voucher program started in 2011, 10 percent of voucher students had never attended public school. In 2013, 40 percent of voucher students had never attended public schools. The total number of voucher students has been doubling every year. And of 5,225 new voucher students who became eliglble last year under looser eligibility standards, the vast majority never attended public schools. So our voucher program is in large part a program for spending public money to send children to private (and generally explicitly religious) schools.

    All the more galling when I consider the numbers of those schools that are teaching creationist tripe. There are plenty of failing schools, schools that do a poor job by any sensible measure, but I’d prefer to think there is a better solution than to subsidize the movement of pupils from those bad public schools to private religious schools.

  11. Left-wing distortion of history seems much more prevalent than right-wing distortion of history in K-12 education. In Austin, TX, that is definitely the case.

    I grew up being taught a strong white-hate, white-guilt view of history, that only in my 30’s have I fully realized how wrong and politically biased it is.

    I view creationism as a kind of barometer of anti-science ignorance and it is obviously wrong, but it is less offensive than the racially charged left-wing history biases I see.

  12. So called “education reform” in the US seems to be an assault on public education by a combination of thieves and nonsense peddlers. We’d better get back to the way things were or it’s going to become a worse disaster than it already is. All levels of education are being demolished.

  13. The Columbus Dispatch posted a short complementary article by Benjamin Wermund, public education reporter for the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman. Here are two bits from the article…

    The American-Statesman acquired Responsive Ed’s biology curriculum, which says: “Many leading scientists are questioning the mechanisms of evolution and are disputing the long timeline required for evolutionary processes.”

    Responsive Ed’s CEO, Chuck Cook, says the biology curriculum offers a balanced look [à la Fox News] at differing opinions on the theory of evolution.

    Of course both these statements are completely bogus, but the rub that riles me most is the ruthless hijacking of the critical thinking rubric.

  14. Darrelle is right! Religious organizations commonly target low income and the disabled instead of helping the rich and those without need. Almost sounds like government but that’s another story! I personally have narrowed all the controversy down to two possible scenarios and am content with flipping a coin…heads I came from a monkey and tails I’m the result of a Big Bang! Let’s just give all the poor a quarter and let them decide for themselves! Peace out morons!

    1. You are a descendant of monkeys and you are the result of the Big Bang.

      Perhaps I’ve just wasted a few seconds, because I suspect that was just a passing troll-comment and the concept of false choices may not be one you are familiar with.

Leave a Reply