Wednesday, May 17, 2006

More on the Death of S114

Via an email by Rob Dillon, my former genetics professor and president of SCSE, I've now got a first-hand account of what transpired at the House Education and Public Works Committee yesterday. A couple of notes: The entire bill was tabled, and with the legislature adjourning on June 1st, that means it's dead. So I'm assuming that the fact that the "critical analysis" language remains in the Senate version doesn't matter, because the House won't be voting on it. So stick a fork in it, it's done. Secondly, Walker himself decided to kill his own original amendment and then insert one or two others. Everyone agreed to kill the first amendment, but no one seemed to side with him on the others. It didn't help his case that the amendments were comically confused, and the committee spent much of its time just trying to figure out what the hell they were saying. B.R. Skelton for his part wasn't just passively opposed to the amendments, he gave Walker a verbal ass-whoopin' over the whole creationism thing. Awesome.

Below I'm going to quote lengthy segments of Rob's email, since it was juicy and contains more information than I could reasonably convey second-hand.

Most of the discussion that followed [the proposal of Walker's first amendment] consisted of (entirely unsuccessful) attempts by various Representatives to ascertain what the heck Mr. Walker meant by his amendment. Rep. Joseph Neal (D-Richland) and Rep. Vida Miller (D-Georgetown) focused on peculiar language to the effect that "not less than 10%" of the material in qualifying textbooks shall involve higher-order thinking skills. Walker admitted some uncertainty as to the methods by which such a measurement might be taken, but insisted on the necessity of his language to match the Senate budget proviso.

No less than 10% involving "higher-order thinking skills"? Say what? What exactly is a higher-order thinking supposed to mean as opposed to, say, a lower-order thinking skill, or a medium-rare thinking skill? I suspect this is what happens when the Discovery Institute's Orwellian language gets mangled by the incompetent hands of Bob Walker.

I was impressed with Rep. Kenneth Clark (R-Lexington) who characterized the debate as "dancing around the question." Mr. Clark observed that the real issue is evolution versus creationism, and that Mr. Walker's amendment would bring the bible into the science class. Mr. Clark said, "I'm a Christian. I accept Christ as my Savior. And I do not want Bible being taught by atheists, agnostics, and Satanists as an alternative to evolution in the science class." This is an especially florid statement of an argument commonly offered in milder form from mainline Christian pulpits. I wish it were more widely heard.

It is a reasonable sentiment, but really, how many Satanists do we have teaching in public schools? (Except of course for Mrs. Xxxxxx, my 3rd grade teacher, if that mean old bitch is still alive.) Frankly, I don't think it matters who starts teaching religion or for what purpose, it's a violation of our rights either way.

But by far the most impressive contribution of the afternoon was made by Rep. B. R. Skelton (R-Pickens), who grilled Mr. Walker mercilessly for what seemed like hours. "Bob," he said, "Convince me this is not an effort to get around the State Board of Education." Mr. Skelton reviewed the SBE/EOC deadlock in considerable detail, and challenged Mr. Walker to explain the legal ramifications of the disagreement. Mr. Skelton (who apparently has a background in contract law) observed that there were "bunches of ambiguous words" in the Walker amendment, and couldn't see how this particular legislation could do anything but make the confusion worse. He then produced a copy of the Fordham Foundation booklet ranking the state science standards, and read to Bob Walker all the high scores and nice compliments South Carolina has received. He challenged Bob Walker to "critically analyze" the Fordham report, and ended with a Bertrand Russell quote. I have a new hero.
Rep Jesse Hines (D-Darlington) wondered aloud whether Mr. Walker might know what a "higher-order thinking skill" might be. Was he familiar with Bloom's taxonomy? Rep. Michael Arthony (D-Union) interjected that Mr. Walker's amendment was a perfect example of people who don't know anything about education interfering with the business of professional educators.

At that point, Rep. Skelton moved to table Rep Walker's amendment. This was done by a large majority, on a voice vote.
Rep. Walker then reached into his stack of papers and distributed a second amendment. Again we in the gallery were not privy to the wording, but I gather that the substance of this second proposal was very, very minor. I think it merely added "and the Education Oversight Committee" to the tail of the original S114 wording.

The general tenor of the discussion regarding this amendment was similar to that attending Mr. Walker's earlier effort. Ms. Miller admitted confusion and asked for clarification. Mr. Walker insisted that the intent of this particular amendment was simply to recognize an established point of law, that the EOC as well as the SBE must approve curriculum standards.

Chairman Townsend weighed in on this issue, opining that the addition suggested by Mr. Walker would involve the EOC in textbook selection. No, Mr. Walker insisted (and I think rightly!) the amendment would simply involve the EOC in curriculum, not in textbook selection. But alas, at this juncture it appeared that Mr. Walker couldn't count a friend or ally in the room, not even the Chair.

Then Rep. Skelton opened up again, beginning with a simple question, "Why?" If in fact the role of the EOC is already clearly detailed in the statute, why do we need this amendment? Skelton was really tough.

Considerable discussion of a technical nature followed, regarding the law as it is currently written. A number of clarifications were offered (half-heartedly) by members but nothing seemed to catch on. Regarding the relationship between the SBE and the EOC, there was an awkward contribution by Rep. Anthony, who lamented the treatment suffered by his appointee [Dr. Kristi Woodall] to the State Board of Education. She was attacked in The State Newspaper, and her Christianity questioned. "This is not right!"

Sensing that the discussion might be degenerating, Rep. Skelton moved to table Rep. Walker's second amendment. The motion to table carried on a voice vote, with only a couple dissenters.

This left the Committee with the main motion, S114 in its original language, as passed by the Senate. Rep. Miller moved to adjourn debate on the motion, and this passed unanimously.

The entire discussion lasted 75 minutes, during which time Rep. Walker was not able to muster a single ally. Never in my many years of watching the South Carolina General Assembly have I been more favorably impressed with a roomful of legislators. There is hope.

Well there you have it. It's much better news than I originally thought, since not only was the bill killed, but a large number of legislators were acutely aware of the purpose of Walker's amendments and took a strong stand in opposition to them. But now we have that mysterious budget proviso which Walker, Fair, or one of their allies must have inserted somewhere into the budget bill when no one was looking. The creationists love to do that sort of thing. Does it really require 10% of textbook material to promote "higher-order thinking skills"? I can't imagine what the textbook purchasers are going to make of that. I'll have more to say on it when we figure out what exactly the proviso says and what it means.