Archive for Monday, July 14, 2003

Analysis: Darwin’s defenders inspire debate on education board

Reopening of old wound comes from unlikely source

July 14, 2003


— If evolution plays a major role in Kansas politics during the next 18 months, Darwin's defenders -- not Darwin's detractors -- will have revived the debate.

Reopening the evolution debate seems like an odd tactic for two Democrats and three Republicans on the State Board of Education, who are known as its moderate bloc and are sometimes pitted against a more conservative bloc of five Republicans.

Current science testing standards identify evolution as an important concept for students to learn. The board must decide whether to review those standards, and a review probably will bring a new attack on evolution.

But the moderate bloc's tactic makes more sense in the larger context of the ongoing fight for control of the board. The moderate bloc anticipates that defending Darwin helps it maintain parity with conservatives.

"The arena is the Republican primary," said board member Bill Wagnon, a Topeka Democrat.

Split 5-5, the board has not decided on a full review of the science standards. A discussion last week failed to bring resolution, and the board plans another debate in August.

The board revised the standards in 2001, in reaction to 1999 events that touched off a political furor.

Then, a debate over evolution brought international attention to what had been a sleepy backwater of Kansas politics. Before that debate, the board most often received criticism for its lack of visibility.

Fourth branch

That low profile persisted even though the board sets testing standards, influences course content, establishes graduation requirements and certifies teachers. The Legislature controls the flow of dollars to public schools, but the board has enough power that some lawmakers have called it a fourth branch of government.

In 1999, the board was two years into an effort to rewrite science testing standards to make them more specific. A committee of educators wrote proposed standards listing evolution among the most important concepts to learn.

But board member Steve Abrams, an Arkansas City Republican, offered a substitute drafted with help from the Creation Science Association of Mid-America in Cleveland, Mo. His proposed standards deleted all but one reference to evolution.

Three months later, a 6-4 board majority approved standards de-emphasizing evolution.

The decision did not banish evolution from Kansas classrooms or require teaching of alternatives grounded in religion, such as creationism or intelligent design. But some scientists worried the vote would start those trends, and many saw it as a huge symbolic victory for religious conservatives, including Biblical literalists.

In a bad light

Nor were critics restrained. Bill Nye, the Science Guy of children's television, called the board's action "harebrained" and "nutty." A year later, the American Association for the Advancement of Science released a study labeling Kansas' standards "disgraceful," grading them F-minus.

By the time the 2000 elections came, evolution became, for some Kansans, the standard for separating political Cro-Magnons from Neanderthals.

The board's majority and its backers grew weary of ridicule and being portrayed as rubes. It's no surprise that last week the conservative bloc resisted starting another review.

"Can you imagine all the folderol the media is going to put across this board and this state when it actually comes to fruition?" Abrams said last week.

Even without folderol, debate over evolution continues.

In May, a team from Wayne State University in Detroit suggested chimpanzees were more closely related to humans than to other primates such as gorillas. In June, the Independence, Mo., school district settled a lawsuit over allegations one teacher required students to take notes from a sermon promoting creationism.

Seats coming up

In Kansas, five of the 10 State Board of Education seats will be filled next year. One belongs to Abrams and the other four, to members of the moderate bloc.

Abrams easily survived the 2000 elections when evolution was the key issue, so he'd stand a good chance of being re-elected.

Moderates only need to look to 2002 to see what can happen to their bloc when board races are relatively quiet.

Without prodding, their supporters tend to sleep through GOP primaries, something that helped conservatives capture seats from two supporters of 2001's evolution-friendly science standards.

In 2000 elections, the board's 6-4 majority in favor of standards that de-emphasized evolution became a 7-3 majority for evolution-friendly standards. Only two years later, the board emerged with a 5-5 split.

With quiet board campaigns in 2004, conservatives could take another seat or two from the moderate bloc and regain control of the board -- then tackle rewriting science standards if it wishes. With evolution as a big issue, moderates stand a good chance of generating enough hullabaloo to get their supporters to the polls.

That's why the moderate bloc wants to have the board debate Charles Darwin's theory again.

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