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Meet Zack Kopplin, out to save science class (really)

In today's Footnote, Melissa profiled the fight against the Louisiana Science Education Act -- and an activist driving that opposition, Rice University freshman
Zack Kopplin, student-activist.
Zack Kopplin, student-activist.

In today's Footnote, Melissa profiled the fight against the Louisiana Science Education Act -- and an activist driving that opposition, Rice University freshman and Baton Rouge native Zack Kopplin. For the last two years, Zack has been the principal force pressuring legislators to get rid of the law, passed under the guise of "academic freedom," and signed by Governor Bobby Jindal in 2008. Critics like Zack allege that the LSEA allows for the teaching of creationism in science classes in Louisiana schools. I spoke with him earlier this week, shortly after a new bill -- the second in as many years -- was introduced by state senator Karen Carter Peterson to repeal the LSEA, and before next week's Online Day of Action.

Jamil Smith: What prompted you to become an activist on this issue? How aware of this law were you when this was signed by the governor?

Zack Kopplin: I wasn't as actively following the bill. I knew it was going through, but there was just this sense of disbelief that it actually got passed to get signed by the governor. I mean, he's a Brown biology major. I remember the day it got signed -- I got home from soccer camp -- and I heard the news. No one believed this was going to happen. At that point, I wasn't old enough to realize that I could actually do anything about it, and so I was just shocked. I went to summer camp (in Connecticut) later that year and basically had to explain that I'm from Louisiana, but I'm not from the "stupid state." Kids at camp had seen the law; it'd been covered in the New York Times. They knew about it, and asked me, "So, what's up with your state? Y'all are passing creationism laws. This is the 21st century!" It was really embarrassing, but I never really knew how to take action on it. My senior year of high school was my last chance to really do anything about it.

JS: So in your senior year, what steps did you take?

ZK: The first thing is, I'd been thinking about it for years, since 10th grade. I'd written my 10th grade research paper on the repeal of this law. I'd done a speech about it. I wanted this law repealed...but I'd always expected someone else to do it. I realized no one else is going to do this, I had a senior project coming up where I could do something like learn a new language, or a new instrument. I was thinking about it, and said, "You know what? I do want to repeal this law." My dad (Andy Kopplin, chief of administration to New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu) had mentioned Dr. Barbara Forrest, a renowned expert on creationism and intelligent design, and who lives down the road in Livingston Parish. So, I emailed her to set up a meeting, and asked her, "If I wanted to repeal this law, what would it take?" That's how I got started.

The school board held a meeting, which got a lot of press because they attempted to use this law to make creationism a part of their curriculum. I was thinking that I wanted to do this, and then suddenly, you see the effects of this law first-hand. It's not just teachers using this as a loophole; this is an entire school board. That was the kick in the butt I needed to really get going.

JS: Then State Senator Peterson files the first repeal bill, and it dies in committee. How do you feel at the time, as an activist, seeing that fail? What lessons did you learn about politics, and the obstacles that lay ahead of you?

ZK: We knew it was going to be tough, but the thing I really learned from that committee hearing? I have a lot of friends who agree with me, but none of them were really activists on the issue. We packed the room with kids, a lot of whom came to support me personally. If they hadn't known me, they'd have stayed at home and hoped (the repeal) had passed. They all expected that our elected representatives would do the right thing, what everyone in that committee knew the right thing to do. And then they watched their elected representatives be disingenuous -- and it actually fired up some of the kids to not just sit on the side on this, but now we have kids who are going to be coordinators on this. It was fascinating to see how it inspired some kids to take action.

The other thing is persistence. We're just going to keep doing this. Senator Peterson wants to make clear that we're going to keep fighting this until the legislature does the right thing and the governor signs the repeal.



JS: What is new about this year's repeal effort?

ZK: The only way to explain it is the absolutely incredible number of Nobel laureate scientists (we have) on board. You take four or five Nobel laureate scientists to tell the President what to do, that makes news everywhere. That's on a national level. Right now, we have 75 Nobel laureates, which is more than 40% of the Nobel laureate scientists who are getting involved in state legislation. So, we're hoping that we can make that point.

But secondly, this is an education year. Our governor wants to focus on education, he's told the legislature (as much), and if the legislature is serious about reform, they'll do this. It's bad for students. The Thomas Fordham Institute, which is a pretty conservative organization supporting school reform -- where Governor Jindal's policy director actually used to work -- actually called the law a "devastating flaw" in our state's science standards.

There's a lot of focus on education this year, and the reform that's in front of everyone's face is this repeal. We hope that it will inspire some legislators to do the right thing and actually stand up and do the right thing for our children.

Right now, we're planning a day of action on the 19th. I'd love to get the signatures on our petition to 120 or 125,000, so we're encouraging people to visit our website, telling everyone about the repeal.

JS: You mentioned your embarrassment earlier -- does it specifically have to deal with what's happening in Southern politics, or is it more of a national thing, for Republicans in particular?

ZK: I wouldn't say that it's a completely Southern issue or a Republican issue, although it swings a little bit in that direction, obviously. But I have to mention that the LSEA was sponsored, actually, by a Democrat in the Senate and a Republican in the House. There's that, and there's states all over the country who are sponsoring bills to put creationism in science classrooms. We've had bills from New Hampshire to Oklahoma to Alabama that have been brought up -- though no other creationism bill other than the one in Louisiana, has actually passed. We're number 1. We're the only state that has a creationism law. And this isn't our first creationism law -- we had one that was thrown out by the Supreme Court. So we haven't beaten our addiction yet.