Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
The news that thousands of Louisiana school-children will be taught that the Loch Ness Monster is real in order to show that the theory of evolution is false pinged around the atheist Twittersphere this week. Oh how the enlightened creatures on the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science discussion board chortled at yet another wacky tale of the American Taliban, sure to be shelved alongside efforts by North Carolina Senators this month to legislate away non-linear extrapolation of sea-level rise and the same state’s constitutional amendment in May restricting marriage to one man and one woman.
Largely missed in much of the coverage that focussed on the sheer nuttiness of those crazy happy-clappy Yanks, was that this sorry development is the predictable outcome of the broadest assault on public education yet by a US state, an agenda of radical privatisation that some of the most prominent New Atheists such as Dawkins, cosmologist Lawrence Krauss and philosopher AC Grayling appear to be more than comfortable with.
As part of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal’s overhaul of the state’s education system passed in May, pupils are to receive publicly funded vouchers to attend privately-run Christian schools teaching the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) programme, which attempts to disprove evolution.
One ACE textbook reads: ‘Have you heard of the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland? “Nessie” for short has been recorded on sonar from a small submarine, described by eyewitnesses, and photographed by others. Nessie appears to be a plesiosaur.’
The Creationist, ‘young Earth’ logic holds that if it can be proved that dinosaurs still exist, then Darwinian evolution is shown to be false.
‘The ACE curriculum seems even to get the details wrong,’ Glenn Branch, the deputy director of the National Center for Science in Education, America’s leading anti-creationist organisation, told this reporter. ‘The ACE textbook identifies the Loch Ness monster as a plesiosaur – but plesiosaurs weren’t dinosaurs, as any eleven-year-old interested in palaeontology could have told them.’
‘The ACE curriculum wouldn’t be appropriate for public schools, both because of its scientific failing and because of its religious agenda,’ he said, adding that ACE and other fundamentalist materials are widely used in Christian schools. ‘But the situation in Louisiana is complex, because a new state-wide private school voucher program is involved, and it’s unclear to what degree the state will be required to oversee curriculum and instruction in the schools benefiting from the vouchers.’
Jindal’s law, the focus of two lawsuits from teachers’ associations, establishes the largest voucher programme of any state in the US. So far, around 125 private and religious schools have the green light to receive publicly funded vouchers given to families to pay for tuition. The vouchers shift millions of dollars out of the public education budget, delivering a windfall of cash to fundamentalist schools, worsening conditions in the public sector.
Any organisation that declares it can provide educational services is entitled to receive the vouchers. Democratic oversight of quality or curriculum has been replaced by ‘parent choice’.
Diane Ravitch, US Undersecretary of Education under George H. W. Bush and a one-time booster of vouchers and charter schools, reversed her opinion in the wake of a major national evaluation by only major national evaluation of charter schools was carried out by Stanford economist Margaret Raymond and funded by pro-charter foundations that showed 17 per cent of charter schools received higher scores, 46 per cent were no different, and 37 per cent performed significantly worse than public schools.
Describing her outrage at Jindal’s scheme, she wrote this month: ‘The voucher programme is a bold effort to privatise public education by taking money away from public schools and giving it to anyone who claims that they can offer some sort of an educational or tutoring or apprenticeship program, in person or online, regardless of its quality.’
The school that is to receive the most voucher students, New Living Word in Ruston, has no library, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune, and lessons are composed of instructional videos about chemistry or English with verses from the Bible plonked in the middle.
It is not that Louisiana authorities are not performing due diligence; the undermining of such oversight and checks is intrinsic to such systems.
Defending the plan, state education commissioner John White said: ‘To me, it’s a moral outrage that the government would say, “We know what’s best for your child”…Who are we to tell parents we know better?’
In 2013, the state plans to extend the programme to ‘mini-vouchers’ that can be cashed by private vendors for tutoring, online courses and apprenticeships, further chipping away at public education funds.
Louisiana is not some bumpkin outlier. Public cash being channelled toward Christian right teaching is happening in at least 13 US states, according to Bruce Wilson, a researcher on the role of religion in American politics, delivering funds to some 200,000 pupils.
Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney last month unveiled his plan for education, which would see Jindal’s voucher scheme rolled out nationwide.
Wilson argues that under Romney’s plan, schools employing ACE curriculum and similar efforts such as the 2007 edition of the Bob Jones University biology textbook that tells students: ‘Is it possible that a fire-breathing animal really existed? Today some scientists are saying yes. They have found large chambers in certain dinosaur skulls… The large skull chambers could have contained special chemical-producing glands. When the animal forced the chemicals out of its mouth or nose, these substances may have combined and produced fire and smoke… Dinosaurs and humans were definitely on earth at the same time and may have even lived side by side within the past few thousand years.’
Beyond the lack of evidence for improved educational results, one of the key criticisms opponents mount against vouchers systems, charter schools and their UK variation, academy schools, is that all these versions of introduction of ‘choice’ into public education actually eliminate or significantly reduce democratic accountability.
In a number of US states, members of a local board of education are elected by voters; school budgets face referenda; meetings of the board must be announced in advance, open to the public and entertain concerns of citizens, while schools awarded vouchers, charter schools, free schools and academies are no longer democratically accountable to local communities.
This is why it is far from unfair to suggest that Dawkins, Krauss, Grayling and company are inadvertently aiding the creationist presence of Nessie in schools. Asked in a chat in 2010 on Mumsnet, the online discussion for parents, whether he would support the creation of an atheist free school, Dawkins replied: ‘I like the idea very much, although I would prefer to call it a free-thinking free school.’ And, taking the unaccountable private approach to the post-secondary level, these three noted New Atheists are pushing ahead with the establishment of the New College of the Humanities, a private, for-profit, elite US-style university in the UK offering £18,000-a-year courses. Grayling for his part has said that said the private route is the only path left to deliver a high-quality humanities education.
Dawkins, Grayling and the rest of the atheism-for-elites cohort will say that their efforts would be precisely the opposite of what perhaps could be described as Louisiana’s Schools of Caledonian Cryptozoology.
But surely the point is not to have atheist schools for the godless wealthy and Bible-thumping schools for everyone else, but to ensure through the democratic construction of secular curricula – which is best ensured via healthily funded state schools – high-quality education for all.
Sneering at God-botherers in the US south is easy. The biggest blow Dawkins and friends can deliver to creationism in schools is to come out robustly in favour of public education.
Louis Mendee explains the real human costs of climate change for the global south.
From climate change to automation to demographic shifts, Mathew Lawrence explains the challenges our economy will face in the coming decade.
Fifty years after the Abortion Act, women are still dying from being denied basic services, write activists from Feminist Fightback
We need to tackle the patronising ideology that lets Tory think-tanks sneer at social tenants, writes Emma Dent Coad
Acid Corbynism allows people to imagine a future beyond the paltry offerings of capitalism, writes Keir Milburn
'We wanted to use a shared love of the beautiful game to stand in solidarity with those living under occupation', writes Kate Hadley.
Priti Patel's shady deals are business as usual. Enough is enough, writes Eleanor Penny
Boris Johnson is a local disaster and a national embarrassment. He must go, writes James Clouting
The global elite have been stealing from society on an unprecedented scale, writes Tom Walker
Richard Murphy says that the appropriate political will and understanding of tax can put an end to offshore avoidance and evasion
Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism
Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists
Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson
As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win
The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution
Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.
‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes