Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal is rapidly emerging as a new “moderate” Republican voice, but a court case beginning Wednesday is set to shine light on a controversial policy in his state which sees government funding given to schools that teach creationism.
The court case has been brought by a Louisiana teachers union and is aimed at a voucher scheme whereby some parents can take their children out of poor state schools and get vouchers to use at private schools.
One of the most controversial aspects of the programme is that some of the schools ncluded on it are conservative Christian organisations that teach creationism in their science classes. When parents use the vouchers at such establishments they are effectively giving state money to teach children lessons that can include alternatives to the theory of evolution or questioning the widely accepted age of the Earth.
The voucher programme is one of the key achievements of Jindal’s time in office in Louisiana and often hailed by conservatives. However, teachers unions have filed a suit claiming that the voucher law is unconstitutional and undermines the state education system while doling out government money to private schools.
Though the lawsuit does not specifically focus on creationism, the effort to strike the law down will put a spotlight on its more controversial elements.
“This whole voucher plan was to give parents choices. But it is ignoring the quality of those choices,” said Mary-Patricia Wray, legislative and political director of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers.
Certainly the creationism element of the scheme has caught the attention of national civil liberties groups. “They are getting checks from the government with very little oversight for what is being taught. It is an embarrassment,” said Rob Boston, a senior policy analyst at the watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “This is a state that tends to be dominated by religious fundamentalists and some of them are yet to make their peace with evolution.”
One of the main Louisiana voices against the scheme is student activist Zack Kopplin. He began protesting the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act – a law that allowed public funds to be used at schools that teach creationism – as a high school project.
In the wake of the creation of the voucher scheme this summer Kopplin has now detailed at least 20 Louisiana schools that teach elements of creationism and are involved in the voucher programme. One school, Claiborne Christian School, has a student handbook that says it will “look to the Bible as the main source of knowledge in all areas”.
A 2010 Claiborne newsletter also questioned current science on the age of the Earth. Another school on the scheme is the Faith Academy whose student handbook insists students should “defend creationism through evidence presented by the Bible versus traditional scientific theory”.
Other Louisiana schools use textbooks, DVDs and other materials designed by Christian groups that often defend the idea of a young earth created a few thousand years ago or promote so-called “intelligent design” which holds that evolution cannot account for the development of complex biological systems, such as the eye.
“This is ridiculous. When I first heard about it, I thought someone needs to fight it. But no one did,” said Kopplin, explaining why he began his work examining the impact of the voucher system.
The “stealth creationism” has been roundly condemned by numerous education groups, including a letter signed by some 77 Nobel laureates who have won the international prize in fields like chemistry, biology, medicine or physics. “It is vital that students have a sound education about major scientific concepts and their applications,” the letter stated, asking for repeal of the education law that helped pave the way for the scheme.
Other experts are more blunt. While conservatives have argued the voucher scheme is an innovative way of getting pupils out of poor schools – and encouraging needed reforms in the system – critics have said that exposing pupils to creationism gives them a much worse factual education.
“It is not better education. It is inferior when you are teaching kids that the earth is 6,000 years old. A lot of public money is going to schools that teach creationism and fundamentalist science. I think that is dreadful,” said Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor at Southeastern Louisiana University and an outspoken critics of creationist activists in education.
Close attention to the impact of the voucher scheme could start to hamper Jindal as he seeks to become one of the Republican party’s leading lights as it digests the impact of Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential election defeat.
Jindal, who will next year hold the high-profile position of head of the Republican Governors’ Association, has made numerous outspoken criticisms of Republican extremism in recent weeks. He even told one interviewer that the GOP should “stop being the stupid party”.
However, critics of his voucher policy contend that its funding of creationist teaching will undermine any attempt to appear moderate on a national stage, especially if Jindal starts lining up a presidential bid for 2016. “It makes me laugh when I read that Jindal is a moderate. He is a rather imperfect messenger. Now he is going to get national scrutiny and this voucher plan will loom large,” said Boston.