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Montana students balk at ‘just the facts’

Helena middle and high school students testified before the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee on Monday.

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This story is excerpted from Capitolized, a twice-weekly newsletter that keeps an eye on the representatives you voted for (or against) with expert reporting, analysis and insight from the editors and reporters of Montana Free Press. Want to see Capitolized in your inbox every Tuesday and Friday? Sign up here.:

HELENA — Helena middle and high school students gave lawmakers a crash course in science Monday. Testifying before the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee, they sought to explain how a bill restricting public school science curriculum to “scientific fact” that is “observable and repeatable” would put them at an academic disadvantage and undermine instruction on a host of widely accepted scientific theories.

What theories exactly? According to Senate Bill 235’s opponents, the challenged subjects would run the gamut: evolution, the big bang, plate tectonics, special relativity, string theory. Students explained that while many lines of scientific thinking may be supported by observable fact, they remain broadly theoretical — grounds for continued debate, testing and peer review. That is, in essence, how science works, driving humanity’s advancements and understanding.

“Not teaching these theories would stifle innovation as we move backward in science education while the rest of the country moves forward,” said Helena seventh-grader Greysen Jakes.

Capital High School senior Lindsey Read argued that the potential impacts of SB 235 wouldn’t be felt only in science classrooms. Science “exists throughout a student’s education,” she said, with scientific theories often appearing in math and history classes. For retired Missoula science teacher Rob Jensen, the bill’s restrictions cut deep enough to constitute “the most extreme anti-science legislation I’ve ever seen in this country.”

SB 235 sponsor Sen. Daniel Emrich, R-Great Falls, countered that his proposal was not the existential threat opponents purported it to be. Instead, he said, the bill is an effort to define scientific fact in state law and help students distinguish between fact and theory so they can ask “the right questions.” But public education leaders questioned whether that effort would ultimately prove burdensome, requiring the state to comb through textbooks and lesson plans to ensure compliance. Committee members openly wondered if the bill is even constitutional, or an infringement on the authority of Montana’s Board of Public Education and local school trustees.

Despite the stakes, Montana Federation of Public Employees President Amanda Curtis said she’d “never enjoyed a hearing as much as this,” nodding to the students in the room.

“It is really a perfect crossroads between the science, civics and debate education that our students are receiving in Montana’s excellent public schools.”

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