By JOANNA WEISS
New York Times News Service
The first time Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said that the GOP needed to “stop being the stupid party” — in an interview with Politico last fall, a few days after the presidential election — I got an e-mail from Zack Kopplin. I had just written that Jindal was an intriguing potential face of the GOP: young, smart, Indian-American, with Southern roots and a background in health care wonkery. Kopplin, a 19-year-old college student from Baton Rouge, wanted to remind me that Jindal had signed the Louisiana Science Education Act, the Orwellian-named law that permits creationism to be taught in Louisiana public schools.
That fact doesn’t always come up in national snapshots of Jindal, but the “stupid” line has become one of the governor’s trademarks: He repeated it last week in a widely covered speech to the Republican National Committee. Granted, he was talking about Todd Akin, who said some unfortunate things about abortion and rape last fall — and about Mitt Romney, who burnished the Republican image as the party of those who eat canapes and complain about the help.
And, granted, Jindal also said that the GOP needs to retain its values. But is diluting education the kind of value his party needs? Kopplin has been working for four years to make sure that question gets asked. He was a high school student in Baton Rouge in 2008, when the Louisiana Science Education Act overwhelmingly passed the Legislature, with Jindal’s support.
The law doesn’t require schools to teach intelligent design, but it gives cover to teachers and school boards that do. Kopplin’s teachers, at a public magnet school, found it appalling. So did Kopplin, whose father has been a top aide to Democratic and Republican governors.
So for his high school senior project, Kopplin launched a campaign to repeal the law. He started by contacting Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor at Southeastern Louisiana University. She had been an expert witness in the 2005 intelligent-design trial in Dover, Penn. And she had been tracking the promotion of creationism nationwide — a think tank in Seattle has been leading a state-by-state campaign — and the growing power of the religious right in Louisiana, where Christian conservatives were key to Jindal’s election.
Forrest told Kopplin he should fight the law, even though he would probably lose. So they found a senator to introduce a repeal. They lined up Nobel laureates to sign a petition. The head of Louisiana State University’s graduate science program testified that, because of the law, professors were leaving and promising hires were refusing to come. Science organizations boycotted New Orleans for their conferences. (One lifted its ban this month, after the city council and school board took anti-creationist votes.)
The repeal effort has failed twice so far, but Kopplin has gained increasing fame as Jindal’s boyish nemesis. A couple of weeks ago, the website io9 declared that he’s “making life hell for Louisiana’s creationists.” That might be an overstatement, but Kopplin’s clout is clearly growing, as evidenced by the backlash. Yesterday, I got an e-mail from a right-wing education group, accusing him of being a tool for teachers’ unions.
Meanwhile, Kopplin has taken on vouchers, one of Jindal’s pet programs, partnering with MSNBC to report that 300 schools, in at least nine states, are teaching creationism as science on the taxpayer dime. He hopes to start a “Second Giant Leap” campaign to end creationism bills across the country, and to invest $1 trillion for science education.
This spring, Kopplin’s allies in Baton Rouge will introduce a repeal bill for the third time. Jindal’s press office didn’t respond to my queries about what he’ll do. But with Jindal’s support, Kopplin said, a repeal would probably pass.
“I expect this law bothers him as much as it bothers me,” Kopplin told me. “He’s a Brown biology major.”
He’s also an ambitious politican. And now, he’s making his national play, courting headlines and coyly brushing off questions of 2016. At the very least, the Louisiana Science Education Act is a giant stain on his brand.
If he’s smart enough to abandon it — to take his own slogan to heart — will Republicans reward him, or punish him?