Louisiana is no stranger to click-through slideshow articles about "the worst" something or other: schools, states, crime. Every few weeks the Internet gets in its "Louisiana is dumb" jokes and moves on to the next headline.
"Louisiana Private Schools Teach Loch Ness Monster Is Real" didn't come from the satirical newspaper The Onion. That wholly inaccurate string of words came from the aggregate news website The Huffington Post, and was repeated on hundreds other websites and newspapers in the latest attempt to click-grab readers based on something stupid happening in Louisiana.
But this time they were wrong. Sort of.
Biology textbook 1099, produced by Accelerated Christian Education Inc. (ACE), was first published in 1995. A passage 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. ... Could a fish have developed into a dinosaur? As astonishing as it may seem, many evolutionists theorize that fish evolved into amphibians and amphibians into reptiles. This gradual change from fish to reptiles has no scientific basis. No transitional fossils have been or ever will be discovered because God created each type of fish, amphibian, and reptile as separate, unique animals. Any similarities that exist among them are due to the fact that one Master Craftsman fashioned them all."
ACE ("Reaching the world for Christ ... one child at a time") is a Tennessee-based — not Louisiana — textbook publisher and educator that provides teaching materials to private schools and for homeschooling. It was founded in 1970 and has been criticized by secular educators for misrepresenting history and science and producing dubious instructional material. In the 2010-2011 school year, it earned $1.4 million in tuition revenue, with a total revenue of nearly $2 million and with a total worth of more than $5 million.
ACE is one of the country's largest publishers of Christian teaching materials, alongside A Beka Book Publications ("excellence in education from a Christian perspective") and Bob Jones University Press ("Christ-centered resources for education"), which both produce similar material for homeschooling and Christian schools across the country — again, not just Louisiana.
Thanks to the widely circulated "Loch Ness" story, the school now associated with ACE in Louisiana is Eternity Christian Academy and Learning Institute in Westlake. Its principal told Reuters that students there are not exposed to evolution.
How did this obscure Christian school from Westlake get thrust into the international spotlight? It began with Gov. Bobby Jindal and the state's brand new voucher program.
Eternity Christian has been approved for 135 vouchers — 15 for each grade level (kindergarten through eighth grade) — as part of the Louisiana Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers for nonpublic school tuition to students from underperforming public schools.
Louisiana's House Bill 976 proposed a seemingly simple but controversial law: students from failing or under-performing public schools should have the option to go to a private school. It was Jindal's big reveal for his education "reform" package, and House Bill 976 soon became law as Act 2. Its opponents argued, as have opponents of similar bills in other states, that public funds shouldn't go to private institutions, and that it pits public schools in competition against each other in a shift to privatize all schools.
Vouchers are available to students from low- and middle-income families and those who attend poorly performing public schools — more than half the state's student population, but only 5,000 vouchers are available for the program's pilot year. For every tuition-paying voucher, a public school in that student's district loses commensurate funding.
HB 976, which is 47 pages long, does not offer benchmarks for accountability at failing private schools, unlike public schools, which are scrutinized for failing performances.
Schools had until May 19 to apply, and the results dropped in June: The more than 120 private schools that applied for the program are mostly small and cash-strapped Christian schools — "prestigious" private schools have fewer openings, and most of the approved schools teach Bible-based curricula.
Twenty school districts joined a lawsuit pending against the state to argue the program is unconstitutional and violates a state constitutional provision that "state funding for public education shall be equitably allocated to public systems."
"This is not about reform," said Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor at Southeastern Louisiana University and a critic of intelligent design. "You don't reform education when you send children to schools on public money and they'll come out with a total misconception about what science is, and the science of evolution."
Among the approved schools in New Orleans are mostly Catholic grammar schools with only a handful of openings, except for the Upperroom Bible Church Academy on Lake Forest Boulevard, which has been approved for 167 scholarships in kindergarten through seventh grade; Light City Christian Academy on St. Claude Avenue, 117 scholarships in kindergarten through seventh grade; and New Orleans Adventist Academy, 130 scholarships in kindergarten through eighth grade. (The Adventist school system, second-only in size worldwide to Catholic schools, teaches a creationist-based science curriculum.)
But the New Living Word in Ruston — a school without a library and a mostly DVD-based curriculum — qualified for 315 vouchers, the most of any school in the state.
"Up to this point, we've done additional follow-up site visits, reviews of staffing plans for schools that want to take additional students that they have staff in place, we've reviewed their academic plan as well to make sure they're able to accommodate additional students coming into the school," said Louisiana Department of Education (DOE) deputy chief of staff Nicholas Bolt. "In many cases we've done a tour of the facilities to make sure they have the physical space for the students they're requesting."
Schools that applied had to meet the approval of a "nonpublic review board" and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Bolt said DOE will soon release its criteria for participation.
"Any type of concern about (schools) we do a physical site visit," he said. "We look at the facilities, we review their plan and what they told us they expect to build. All of that will come into a plan and we'll generate a final recommendation. ... In some cases the facility isn't large enough (and) that may impact the number of students they're allowed to provide."
The review board also assesses and approves curricula, but Bolt said material itself — "textbook by textbook" — is not vetted in the same way as public schools. It is largely up to the discretion of the schools.
"There is a process by which nonpublic schools have to have their curriculum reviewed to be a certified nonpublic school in Louisiana," he said. "Not all public school material is vetted, as well. There is some discretion, there is some autonomy (over) the type of material you'd like to present." The schools are largely held accountable for state standardized test scores and requirements.
Even smaller-sized voucher recipients like Northeast Baptist School (NBS), which was preliminarily approved for 40 scholarships, are forthright about their curricula. NBS' website states: "The Christian curriculum used at NBS is designed for traditional classroom teaching. Materials used include the A Beka Book Publications and Bob Jones University Press Publications."
The genesis of the Loch Ness story doesn't come from Louisiana's current education brouhaha, but from a three-year-old article first published in an overseas trade newspaper.
According to a July 31, 2009 article in the education publication TES Newspaper, the U.K.'s National Academic Recognition Information Centre approved something called the International Certificate of Christian Education — comparable to a diploma from a Christian school. Recipients of the certificate graduate from British schools teaching Evangelical Christian-based social sciences and biology from textbooks purchased from ACE. Sources used for the article were former Christian fundamentalist-turned-critic Jonny Scaramanga and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who had discovered schools using the textbooks in classes throughout the U.K. ACE-curriculum schools, they claimed, taught creationism, the "benefits" of apartheid, Noah's Ark — and that the Loch Ness monster is a living plesiosaur, a dinosaur whose existence disproves evolution.
In 2011, Rachel Tabachnick wrote a series of lengthy articles for the website Alternet.org about the state of Christian academy curricula in the U.S., particularly those funded by voucher programs, mostly in Florida but also voucher programs in Arizona, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
This year, Jindal's education "reform" program introduced vouchers for public school students to attend private schools, provided the schools meet certain requirements. The DOE unveiled the schools applying for those funds, and listed how many scholarships met preliminary approval.
As the voucher program was underway in Louisiana, newspapers in Scotland picked up news that some of the teaching materials used at approved schools contain ACE textbooks — the ones floating Nessie as a real-life dinosaur. Loch Ness, being a treasured Scottish landmark, gave readers a laugh-out-loud headline ("How American fundamentalist schools are using Nessie to disprove evolution" read The Herald Scotland). Similar headlines took the story viral, with jabs from everyone from political website Wonkette to Mother Jones and The Washington Post — all over a not-so-new story, one that's hardly unique to Louisiana, and the contents of a 17-year-old textbook that may not even be used in 2012.
But the spotlight was on Louisiana — not ACE, the company earning the school's dollars and printing the materials, nor the program itself, nor any of the other states that use ACE materials in their schools.
"The darn thing has gone viral," Forrest said, "and we have a lot more solid material we can consult in order to establish that paying public dollars to fund religious schools is a really bad idea."
Less noticed outside the state was a May 2012 story published in the Monroe newspaper The News-Star, which detailed the lack of facilities at a Christian school in Ruston that had been approved for135 student vouchers. Earlier this month, leaked emails printed by The News-Star showed DOE superintendent John White emailing Jindal staffers in response, and writing he would "create a news story" to "talk through the process with the media, muddying up a narrative they're trying to keep black and white."
It was more substantial and less sexy than a story about Southerners and sea monsters, but it wasn't reprinted around the world.