NY Times, November 9, 2005
Kansas Board Approves Challenges to Evolution
TOPEKA, Kan., Nov. 8 - The fiercely split Kansas Board of Education voted 6 to 4 on Tuesday to adopt new science standards that are the most far-reaching in the nation in requiring that Darwin's theory of evolution be challenged in the classroom.
The standards press beyond the broad mandate for critical analysis of evolution that four other states have established in recent years, by recommending that schools teach specific points that doubters of evolution use to undermine its primacy in science education.
Among the most controversial changes was a redefinition of science itself, so that it would not be explicitly limited to natural explanations.
The vote was a watershed victory for the emerging movement of intelligent design, which posits that nature alone cannot explain life's complexity. John G. West of the Discovery Institute, a conservative research organization that promotes intelligent design, said Kansas now had "the best science standards in the nation."
A leading defender of evolution, Eugenie C. Scott of the National Center for Science Education, said she feared that the new Kansas standards would serve as a "playbook for creationism."
The vote came six years after Kansas shocked the scientific and political world by stripping its curriculum standards of virtually any mention of evolution, a move reversed in 2001 after voters ousted several conservative members of the education board.
A new conservative majority took hold in 2004 and promptly revived arguments over the teaching of evolution. The ugly and highly personal nature of the debate was on display at the Tuesday meeting, where board members accused each other of dishonesty and disingenuousness.
"This is a sad day, not just for Kansas kids, but for Kansas," Janet Waugh of Kansas City, Kan., one of four dissenting board members, said before the vote. "We're becoming a laughingstock not only of the nation but of the world."
Ms. Waugh and her allies contended that the board's majority was improperly injecting religion into biology classrooms. But supporters of the new standards said they were simply trying to open the curriculum, and students' minds, to alternative viewpoints.
There is little debate among mainstream scientists over evolution's status as the bedrock of biology, but a small group of academics who support intelligent design have fervently pushed new critiques of Darwin's theory in recent years.
Kenneth Willard, a board member from Hutchinson, Kan., said, "I'm very pleased to be maybe on the front edge of trying to bring some intellectual honesty and integrity to the science classroom rather than asking students to check their questions at the door because it is a challenge to the sanctity of evolution."
Steve E. Abrams of Arkansas City, Kan., the board chairman and chief sponsor of the new standards, said that requiring consideration of evolution's critics "absolutely teaches more about science."
The board approved the standards pending editing to comply with a demand from two national science groups that their copyrighted material be removed from the standards document because of its approach to evolution.
When Sue Gamble, a board member opposed to the standards, questioned the wisdom of voting on an unfinished document, calling it "a pig in a poke," Mr. Abrams dismissed the concern, saying, "It's immaterial because you're not going to vote for it anyway."
Indeed, when it was time to raise hands, the four self-described moderate board members cast nay ballots in unison, seated next to one another on the shorter side of the board's horseshoe.
Their protest was echoed by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, who called the vote "the latest in a series of troubling decisions" by the board.
"If we're going to continue to bring high-tech jobs to Kansas and move our state forward," Governor Sebelius said in a statement, "we need to strengthen science standards, not weaken them. Stronger public schools ought to be the mission of the Board of Education, and it's time they got down to the real business of strengthening Kansas schools."
Kansas' move comes a week after the conclusion of a trial in which parents sued the school board in Dover, Pa., over the district's inclusion of intelligent design in the ninth-grade biology curriculum. The two debates have led a swell of evolution skirmishes in 20 states this year.
Local school districts in Kansas, as in most states, choose textbooks and set the curriculum, but the standards provide a blueprint by outlining what will be covered on state science tests, given every other year in grades 4, 7 and 10. The new standards emerged as part of a routine review and would take effect in 2007, presuming next year's elections do not shift the balance on the board and result in another reversal.
Though the standards do not specifically require or prohibit discussion of intelligent design, they adopt much of the movement's language, mentioning gaps in the fossil record and a lack of evidence for the "primordial soup" as ideas that students should consider.
"They've given a green light to any creationist throughout the state to bring these issues into the classroom," said Jack Krebs, a Kansas science teacher and dissenting member of the standards-writing committee. "Science teachers are not prepared for that discussion and don't want it, because they've got plenty of science to teach."
John Calvert, a lawyer who runs the Intelligent Design Network, based in Kansas, praised the board as "taking a very courageous step" that would "make science education interesting to students rather than boring."
In the standing-room-only crowd in the small board room for Tuesday's session were two dozen high school students fulfilling an assignment for government class by attending the public meeting. They shook their heads at the decision.
"We're glad we're seniors," said Hannah Teeter, 17, from Shawnee Mission West, a high school in Overland Park, a suburb of Kansas City. "I feel bad for all the kids that are younger than us that they have to be taught things that aren't science in science class."