It was billed as an innocuous, routine item on the Los Alamitos school board's May 10 agenda. “That’s not a story,” outgoing Superintendent Gregory Franklin assured a reporter when asked about the proposed revisions to Board Policy 213.
But after the item passed, and Patch broke the news that , a firestorm erupted. Los Alamitos became a focal point in the national debate over how to teach global climate change.
Science blogs and Patch's sister publication HuffingtonPost.com linked to the story, and school board members were soon besieged by hundreds of scathing emails and snarky blog comments from around the U.S.
By injecting politics into science lessons, Los Alamitos threatens to "out-dumb" Texas as "the laughing-stock of education," wrote Bill Allen, a former editor-in-chief for National Geographic.
Others asked: Why not teach "both sides" of the moon landing or Holocaust, since some folks doubt those were real too.
In response, district officials suggested critics were "politicizing" and misinterpreting Los Alamitos Unified's policy on teaching "controversial issues."
"We are not trying to micromanage teachers," board member Diana Hill said Saturday morning.
Board President Karen Russell, a former science teacher, said she "absolutely believes in global warming," but nevertheless thinks it's important to challenge students and teach them “another side” of the issue.
Under longstanding school district policy, a "controversial issue" is defined as any topic "on which opposing points of view have been promulgated by responsible opinion" and which is "likely to arouse both support and opposition in the community."
Last week, the school board revised the policy to require that teachers include "a balance of viewpoints" on all controversial issues and come before the board once a year to prove their lesson plans are unbiased (see the PDF accompanying this story). At the time, no parents or teachers commented on the policy change, but one parent told Patch of plans to speak out against the revision at the next meeting, on May 23.
The catalyst for the policy change was a new Los Alamitos High School Advanced Placement science class that covers global warming.
Board member Jeffrey Barke, a doctor, led the charge, saying he thought climate change was a crock and didn't want "liberal" teachers indoctrinating young minds.
His remarks made him a lightning rod for this week's backlash.
“I should’ve chosen my words better," Barke said Saturday, "but I don’t think I deserve having people question my medical license and sending me derogatory comments or personal attacks."
Barke described some of the criticism as “silly” and “offensive,” including suggestions that skepticism toward climate change is akin to denying the moon landing or the Holocaust.
“There are flaws in the data that concern global warming and I respectfully disagree that more than 90 percent of scientists believe global warming exists,” he said. “There are hundreds of reputable scientists such as Bjorn Lomborg and Ian Plimer who deny the causes and concerns of global warming.”
Actually, Lomborg thinks global warming "is real and man-made" and "will have a serious impact on humans and the environment toward the end of this century." Lomborg simply argues it would be more beneficial to focus on wiping out malaria and contaminated water supplies. But he isn't a scientist; he teaches at a business school in Denmark.
Plimer is an Australian geology professor and author whose climate change critique has been lambasted by other scientists.
It's unclear how Los Alamitos Unified's new policy will play out. If the board doesn't like the lesson plan presented by science faculty, will it dictate class content?
“Right now, we just want to see a presentation,” Russell said.
Barke said he would require teachers to present different views on whether global warming exists, whether it is caused primarily by human activity and whether its effects would be disastrous.
Incoming Superintendent Sherry Kropp sought to downplay any prospect of trouble for the new class curriculum. "The course itself is not controversial, just the global warming topic," she said Saturday.
In a written statement emailed to Patch later, she added, "We want our students to develop into complex, critical thinkers who are able to discern fact, opinion, science, etc. The board’s interest is that courses present a balanced curriculum that represents multiple perspectives of controversial issues. ... The course outline and topics for study are dictated by the College Board."
Kropp, who has been with Los Alamitos Unified since the mid-1980s and has spent the past six years as assistant superintendent, said she could recall no other instance of a class being deemed controversial under district policy.
Barke agreed that "99 percent of subjects are not controversial in the classroom--there is nothing controversial about teaching math, reading or writing," but he acknowledged the revised policy opens the door to scrutiny of other course content.
“Sex education can be a topic that we may want to have a presentation on,” he said. “But we haven’t discussed this yet. ... With the passing of this policy, we set a precedent to allow upcoming boards to also review courses as they deem necessary."
Barke said he was stunned by the number and tone of the emails he's received about his desire to have global warming lessons include a "conservative" view.
“This policy affects a minimum number of Los Alamitos students and people have become so emotional,” he said. He added that it wasn't his intent to have politics play a part in his role as board member. “I would have the same concerns if we were talking about a conservative teacher teaching purely conservative views," he said.