For the past eight years, 21-year-old Zack Kopplin has been fighting to keep creationism out of Louisiana’s science classrooms. Despite a series of setbacks and the feeling that he’s continually losing battles, Kopplin still feels he’ll win the war. We spoke with him to learn more.
The latest effort to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act—a highly contentious section of Louisiana law that makes it easier for teachers to introduce creationist texts into classrooms—was shelved yet again on April 22nd, marking the fifth time in as many years that a proposal to repeal the act has been rejected by the Louisiana State Senate Education Committee. For Zack Kopplin, an education activist who for years has fought to keep religious-based teachings out of publicly funded schools, it was another frustrating setback.
We last spoke with Kopplin in early 2013. Since then, he has continued to campaign tirelessly against the act. He’s penned editorials for outlets like The Guardian, been profiled by the New York Times and Washington Post, and appeared on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. In late April, he testified before the Louisiana Senate Education Committee in support of a bill repealing the act. During his testimony, he presented evidence in support of the claim that schools are indeed using the LSEA to teach creationism — a claim denied by Senate education committee chairman Conrad Appel.
We caught up with Kopplin to learn more about the situation in Louisiana, and how its schools continue to use the Science Education Act to dismiss Darwin.
io9: In the eight years since the Louisiana Science Education Act was introduced, how has it been received and interpreted by both lawmakers and teachers?
Kopplin: There is clear intent from Louisiana policymakers that this law is for teaching creationism. Senator Ben Nevers, the Legislative sponsor of the law, said it was to have creationism taught whenever evolution was taught. And Governor Bobby Jindal told NBC’s Education Nation that the law was for teaching creationism.
There is also clear and systematic implementation of this law for teaching creationism in Louisiana. I’ve collected evidence from six Louisiana Parishes and school districts that the teachers, school boards, and right-wing activists who have been involved with implementing the law are using it to teach creationism.
What have been some of the more noteworthy developments since we last spoke in January 2013?
There was one important court case in Louisiana over teaching creationism. A Buddhist student, C.C. Lane, in Sabine Parish, Louisiana was taught creationism in his science class, and told that evolution was a “stupid” theory that “stupid people made up because they don’t want to believe in God.”
C.C.’s science tests included a question which said, “ISN’T IT AMAZING WHAT THE _____________ HAS MADE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” and students were expected to write in “LORD.” Teachers and administrators in the school district also mocked C.C. for being Buddhist, and the Superintendent of the school system suggested he convert to Christianity or transfer to a school with “more Asians.”
The school district settled the case out of court and agreed to a consent decree to stop promoting religion, so the Louisiana Science Education Act wasn’t directly addressed. I spoke to the lawyer for the Sabine Parish School District, Neal Johnson, during the case, and he told me that he viewed the Science Education Act as a “viable defense” that he intended to use. A year after the case was settled, I spoke to Johnson again, and while he didn’t remember the exact specifics of how he would have used the law if it had been raised, it would have been turned over to the Attorney General to defend, which is exactly the purpose of the Louisiana Science Education Act — a liability shift from the individual teacher who broke the law, onto the state, which encourages teachers to teach creationism.
C.C. and his father Scott testified to the Senate Education Committee about their experience in Sabine Parish, and urged them to repeal the Science Education Act.
I think it’s also worth pointing out that both Louisiana and Texas are part of the 5th circuit. In Texas, I learned that millions of dollars are being spent on a creationist charter chain, Responsive Education Solutions, which was teaching creationism and calling the Fossil Record “sketchy.” This was happening in part because of a Texas State Board of Education policy that is similar to Louisiana’s law, and I foresee a situation in which everything gets tied together.
In your opinion, why did the bill to repeal the act on April 22nd get rejected, and why is it proving to be so difficult to kill this act?
I believe it is a simple question of courage.
We’ve demonstrated that this law is humiliating us publicly — Nobel laureate Sir Harry Kroto called Louisiana a “laughingstock” because of this law. We’ve demonstrated that the scientists are against it — 78 Nobel laureates have called for its repeal. LSU’s former Graduate Dean of Science, Kevin Carman, testified that scientists had left LSU, or refused to take jobs in Louisiana because of this law. We’ve also demonstrated that creationism is being taught.
We’ve met every bar that the Legislature has set to repeal this law, and they’ve refused meet their end of the bargain.
In part, it’s because we have creationists in the Legislature, like Senator Elbert Guillory, who didn’t want to take witch doctors out of science class.
This year, Senator Guillory accused scientists of burning people alive for believing the Earth was round and that the Earth rotated the sun. Senator JP Morrell had to correct him that the Church actually had done that. Senator Mike Walsworth, who also voted against the repeal, once demanded we show him evidence that E. Coli turned into people.
But it’s also because people are afraid of the religious right, which wields a great amount of influence in Louisiana. Senator Conrad Appel, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee is not a creationist, but he cast the deciding vote against us and for creationism. I can’t speak for what’s in his mind and in his heart, but I believe he voted the way he did because of the undue influence that right-wing religious groups wield in this state.
I’m not sure I will ever convince someone like Senator Walsworth, but I believe that politicians who aren’t creationists must stand up and vote to make sure their students are taught real science.
Senator Conrad Appel has denied that Louisiana supports or promotes the teaching of religious doctrine in the classroom. But in a recent article for Slate, and in your testimony, you claim that school board members are using a “back door” to teach creationism. Can you tell us more about this?
I have emails from teachers calling “snake leg nubbs” proof of creationism and a letter from 20 teachers in Ouachita Parish claiming they’re teaching the “discrepancies” in evolution. There is no scientific evidence against evolution, so these attacks on evolution, even if they’re not specifically labeled creationism, are still creationist. I’ve got emails from conservative activists to create and spread creationist teaching materials and get school boards to adopt language to further encourage their teachers to teach creationism. School board members across the state have been using this law to promote creationism.
In Livingston Parish, school board member Jan Benton said the law is for “critical thinking and creationism,” and in Terrebonne Parish, a policy was created for teachers to “deliver facts for both arguments,” which is both evolution and creationism. In Tangipahoa Parish school board member Brett Duncan requested that guidelines be developed “for the review of supplemental materials to be used by teachers for discussing evolution, creationism, and intelligent design.” I also have a 2012 email from Nick Bolt, a former Deputy Chief of Staff in the Louisiana Department of Education, where he said that in Louisiana schools, creationism was an “academic fact.”
But the fact of the matter is that it’s not easy to know what’s going on inside Louisiana classrooms.
There are hundreds of biology classes across the state of Louisiana, and it’s up to each individual teacher to choose what they teach. I’ve been requesting emails and lesson plans from school districts around Louisiana, but it has been a tough job to get this material. Many school districts aren’t familiar with the Public Records Act in Louisiana, and aren’t quick to comply, and others appear to be deliberately withholding information from me, because of what it contains. It took me six months to obtain the letter from Ouachita teachers, with two school boards telling me that they had lost it and that it wasn’t a public record, because they knew it was an admission of teaching creationism. I was persistent and eventually made this information public, but for some school boards, it looks like I’m going to face a similar battle over every piece of information.
Also, for students and parents, I am always willing to be a resource and provide support and advice for anyone who is being taught creationism in their public schools.
Can you provide us with some examples of the kind of thing that’s being taught?
As already mentioned, Snake Leg Nubbs are used as proof of creationism. In addition, punctuated evolution is supposedly untestable, there are gaps in the fossil record, there is a lack of observable data of evolution, the fossil record has been misinterpreted by scientists, Darwinian evolution has no explanation for the flagella, and so on. You’ll find plenty more examples in these documents, here and here.
You’ve said that you want to work with the Senate Education Committee to investigate what’s being taught in Louisiana. How optimistic are you that this will happen?
The Louisiana Senate Education Committee has not made good on their promises in the past. If they don’t investigate and fix this mess internally, I believe this will eventually result in an expensive court case that the State of Louisiana will lose.
I intend to call other groups besides the Senate Education Committee to investigate the fact that the Legislature refuses to take action to repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is being used to teach creationism.
What are your next steps to stop creationism from being taught with public money?
I’m going to keep investigating what’s going on in Louisiana. I’ve got more public records requests in to more school districts. Plus, Tennessee has a creationism law too, and plenty of school boards around the country, including Texas, have anti science curriculum policies that operate in a similar manner to Louisiana’s law. There’s plenty more to investigate.
And I’m always happy to be a source for people who have personal experience being taught creationism in a public school.
Plus, if we ever get rid of creationism, there’s still global warming denial, and there are attempts from right wing groups to push that into classrooms too.
How has the struggle to get the Louisiana Science Education Act affected you personally? Are you still receiving threats and insults?
I’ve built some incredible armor over the years. I’ve been criticized on pretty much every aspect of how I look, speak, or what I say at this point, but it’s now really easy for me to ignore. I also really have to marvel at people’s capacity to hate people that they don’t know. Ultimately, I think facing nastiness comes with the territory of putting yourself out there to make positive change, and you have to roll with the punches.
What’s far more depressing to me is watching people, like Senator Appel, who are not creationists, vote for something they know is wrong. It’s exhausting. It doesn’t make sense to me, because this is actually a right and wrong moral choice. Creationism isn’t science. It doesn’t belong in science class. If you vote for the Louisiana Science Education Act, you’ve cast a vote to hurt our students. I would rather do the right thing and lose an election than hurt students in my district.
Top image: Moyers & Company/YouTube