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Kansas board boosts evolution education

The Kansas Board of Education has approved new evolution-oriented science standards for the state's public schools.
Kansas Board of Education members Kathy Martin, left, and Sally Cauble look over the new science standards approved Tuesday in Topeka.
Kansas Board of Education members Kathy Martin, left, and Sally Cauble look over the new science standards approved Tuesday in Topeka.Charlie Riedel / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Kansas state Board of Education on Tuesday repealed science guidelines questioning evolution that had made the state an object of ridicule.

The new guidelines reflect mainstream scientific views of evolution and represent a political defeat for advocates of “intelligent design,” who had helped write the standards that are being jettisoned.

The intelligent design concept holds that life is so complex that it must have been created by a higher authority.

The state has had five sets of standards in eight years, with anti- and pro-evolution versions, each doomed by the seesawing fortunes of socially conservative Republicans and a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans.

The board on Tuesday removed language suggesting that key evolutionary concepts — such as a common origin for all life on Earth and change in species creating new ones — were controversial and being challenged by new research. Also approved was a new definition of science, specifically limiting it to the search for natural explanations of what is observed in the universe.

“Those standards represent mainstream scientific consensus about both what science is and what evolution is,” said Jack Krebs, a math and technology teacher who helped write the new guidelines. He is also president of Kansas Citizens for Science.

The state uses its standards to develop tests that measure how well students are learning science. Although decisions about what is taught in classrooms remain with 296 local school boards, both sides in the evolution dispute say the standards will influence teachers as they try to ensure that their students test well.

John Calvert, a retired attorney who helped found the Intelligent Design Network, said under the new standards, “students will be fed an answer which may be right or wrong” about questions like the origin of life.

“Who does that model put first?” he said. “The student, or those supplying the preordained ‘natural explanation’?”

The Board of Education’s swing back wasn’t likely to settle the issue, given many Kansans’ religious objections and other misgivings about evolution.

“I don’t think this issue is going to go away. I think it’s going to be around forever,” board chairman Bill Wagnon, a Topeka Democrat who supports evolution-friendly standards, said before the vote.

“There’s this, I think, political agenda to just ensure that evolution is the driving, underlying notion that has to be accepted in Kansas science standards in order for Kansas to keep its head up in the world, which is just bizarre,” said board member Ken Willard, a Republican who supported the 2005 standards.

The debate has branched off into history, with the current board planning to delete a passage about abuses of science.

The wording mentioned the Nazis, forced sterilization and the decades-long Tuskegee syphilis study, in which public health officials falsely told poor, black men with the disease that they were being treated for it.

Critics claim the board is trying to sanitize the sometimes ugly history of science, while scientists argue the passage was inserted by supporters of intelligent design during the last revision and unfairly targets abuses perceived as linked to evolution.

Last year, legal disputes or political, legislative or school debates over how evolution should be taught cropped up in at least seven other states. But none of those has inspired attention — or comedians’ jokes — like Kansas has since a conservative-led state board deleted most references to evolution in rewriting the standards in 1999.

Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” had a four-part “Evolution Schmevolution” series in 2005, and hearings that year drew journalists from Canada, France, Britain and Japan.