State board to move quickly on rewriting science standards

State board to move quickly on rewriting science standards
By JOHN HANNA, The Associated Press - 1/9/2007
TOPEKA, Kan. | A new majority on the state school board is moving more quickly than anticipated to rewrite anti-evolution science standards adopted less than two years ago.

The board decided Tuesday to put the science standards on its agenda later in the day, a move that would allow the board to take a final vote next month.

The existing standards, which treat evolution as a flawed theory and incorporate language favored by intelligent design proponents, were adopted in 2005 when the board had a 6-4 majority of conservative Republicans.

But in last year’s board elections, a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans captured a majority. The new members were sworn in Monday and took control Tuesday. The new majority always was expected to bring back evolution-friendly standards, but previously had talked about waiting at least several months.

Sue Gamble, a Shawnee Republican who wants to rewrite the standards, said quick action is possible because a committee of educators worked on a proposal even after the conservative-led board adopted its version.

“We can take action next month,” she said. “Local districts deserve to have high-quality education standards from which to build their local curriculums.”

The standards are used to develop tests that measure how well students are learning science. While they don’t dictate what schools teach — those decisions are left to several hundred local school boards — scientists had worried that any tilt toward intelligent design would encourage changes in the classroom.

“I really question whether we need to look at the science standards again,” said Kathy Martin, a Clay Center Republican who opposes the move to rewrite the standards.

Intelligent design says an intelligent cause is the best way to explain some features of the universe that are complex and well-ordered. Many scientists view it as creationism, repackaged to get around a 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prohibited its teaching as a government endorsement of specific religious doctrines.

Supporters of the current standards, who argue that they merely expose students to more information about evolution and its flaws, urged the board to avoid making changes.

Doug Kaufman, a physician’s assistant from Leavenworth, said if the board lets the current standards remain, science itself will discredit evolution.

“I think they are reverting back to a theory that’s not good science, and I think that’s a mistake,” Kaufman said after speaking during a public hearing. “The current standards, the way they are — it’s fair to science, and it’s fair to students.”

Charlotte McDonald, of Olathe, a science specialist in the Blue Valley school district, said educators want to teach good science but also are sensitive to social and political controversies. She said the standards send an important message to teachers about how the board feels.

“They need to feel they have permission to teach science,” said McDonald, whose husband unsuccessfully sought to unseat one of the board’s conservatives in the 2006 primary. “They want to be backed up. They want to be supported.”

Kansas had evolution-friendly standards in 1999, when a conservative state board majority rewrote them to delete most references to the theory. That inspired international ridicule — and a voter backlash. The board returned to evolution-friendly standards in February 2001, just a month after a moderate majority took over.

Hays school district superintendent Fred Kaufman said it was important to get the matter resolved so it doesn’t keep coming up.

“I guess if it were up to me, I would leave that in the hands of the science teachers and the experts in science,” he said in a phone interview. “It would behoove us all to remember that other people have opinions, and recognize them as honorable and worthwhile and not put them down, but to leave the teaching of science to science teachers.

“If we are going to start teaching religious preferences, we are going to have a real tangle trying to decide whose to teach.”