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Kansas education board downplays evolution

The Kansas Board of Evolution approves science standards for public schools that cast doubt on the theory of evolution.
Chairman Steve Abrams, left, votes to adopt new science standards while Education Commissioner Bob Corkins monitors the vote during a meeting of the Kansas Board of Education on Tuesday.Charlie Riedel / AP
/ Source: news services

Risking the kind of nationwide ridicule it faced six years ago, the Kansas Board of Education approved new public-school science standards Tuesday that cast doubt on the theory of evolution.

The 6-4 vote was a victory for “intelligent design” advocates who helped draft the standards. Intelligent design holds that the universe is so complex that it must have been created by a higher power.

Critics of the new language charged that it was an attempt to inject God and creationism into public schools, in violation of the constitutional ban on state establishment of religion.

All six of those who voted for the new standards were Republicans. Two Republicans and two Democrats voted no.

“This is a sad day. We’re becoming a laughingstock of not only the nation, but of the world, and I hate that,” said board member Janet Waugh, a Kansas City Democrat.

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, said the decision would encourage school districts in Kansas and elsewhere to make similar moves, distracting and confusing teachers and students.

“It will be marketed by the religious right ... as a huge victory for their side,” she said. “We can expect more efforts to get creationism in.”

Supporters see academic freedom
Supporters of the new standards said they would promote academic freedom.

“This is a great day for education. This is one of the best things that we can do,” said board chairman Steve Abrams. Another board member who voted in favor of the standards, John Bacon, said the move “gets rid of a lot of dogma that’s being taught in the classroom today.”

John Calvert, a retired attorney who helped found the Intelligent Design Network, said changes probably would come to classrooms gradually, with some teachers feeling freer to discuss criticisms of evolution. “These changes are not targeted at changing the hearts and minds of the Darwin fundamentalists,” Calvert said.

The Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which supports challenges to Darwinian evolutionary theory, praised the Kansas effort. “Students will learn more about evolution, not less as some Darwinists have falsely claimed,” institute spokesman Casey Luskin said in a written statement.

Science redefined
The new standards say high school students must understand major evolutionary concepts. But they also declare that the basic Darwinian theory that all life had a common origin and that natural chemical processes created the building blocks of life have been challenged in recent years by fossil evidence and molecular biology.

In addition, the board rewrote the definition of science, so that it is no longer limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena.

The new standards will be used to develop student tests measuring how well schools teach science. Decisions about what is taught in classrooms will remain with 300 local school boards, but some educators fear pressure will increase in some communities to teach less about evolution or more about creationism or intelligent design.

The vote marked the third time in six years that the Kansas board has rewritten standards with evolution as the central issue.

Educational deja vu
In 1999, the board eliminated most references to evolution. Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould said that was akin to teaching “American history without Lincoln.” Bill Nye, the “Science Guy” of children’s television, called it “harebrained” and “nutty.” And a Washington Post columnist imagined God saying to the Kansas board members: “Man, I gave you a brain. Use it, OK?”

Two years later, after voters replaced three members, the board reverted to evolution-friendly standards. Elections in 2002 and 2004 changed the board’s composition again, making it more conservative.

The latest vote likely to bring fresh national criticism to Kansas and cause many scientists to see the state as backward.

Many scientists and other critics contend creationists repackaged old ideas in new, scientific-sounding language to get around a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1987 against teaching the biblical story of creation in public schools.

The Kansas board’s action is part of a national debate. In Pennsylvania, a judge is expected to rule soon in a lawsuit against the Dover school board’s policy of requiring high school students to learn about intelligent design in biology class. In August, President Bush endorsed teaching intelligent design alongside evolution.

In an effort to fight back against intelligent-design advocates, a grass-roots group calling itself Campaign to Defend the Constitution said Tuesday that it was launching a $200,000 online ad campaign “to combat a threat posed by the religious right to American democracy.”

“This is a significant attack on science,” said Jack Krebs, vice president of Kansas Citizens for Science. “They really are advancing a sectarian religious view. They’re treading on constitutional grounds.”