Evolution Fight Shifts Direction in Kansas Vote
Evolution Fight Shifts Direction in Kansas Vote
MONICA DAVEY and RALPH BLUMENTHAL, New York Times, Aug 3, 2006
TOPEKA, Kan., Aug. 2 — Less than a year after the Kansas Board of Education adopted science standards that were the most wide-reaching in the nation in challenging Darwin’s theory of evolution, voters on Tuesday ousted the conservative majority on the board that favored those guidelines.
Several of the winners in the primary election, whose victories are virtually certain to shift the board to at least a 6-to-4 moderate majority in November, promised Wednesday to work swiftly to restore a science curriculum that does not subject evolution to critical attack.
They also said they would try to eliminate restrictions on sex education passed by the current board and to review the status of the education commissioner, Bob Corkins, who they said was hired last year with little background in education.
In a state where a fierce fight over how much students should be taught about the criticism of evolution has gone back and forth since 1999, the election results were seen as a significant defeat for the movement of intelligent design, which holds that nature by itself cannot account for life’s complexity.
Defenders of evolution pointed to the results in Kansas as a third major defeat for the intelligent design movement across the country recently and a sign, perhaps, that the public was beginning to pay attention to the movement’s details and, they said, its failings.
“I think more citizens are learning what intelligent design really is and realizing that they don’t really want that taught in their public schools,” said Eugenie C. Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education.
In February, Ohio’s board of education dropped a mandate that 10th-grade biology classes include critical analysis of evolution. Last year, a federal judge ruled that teaching intelligent design in the schools of Dover, Pa., was unconstitutional. But Ms. Scott said that opponents of evolution were hardly finished.
“They’ve had a series of setbacks,” she said, “but I don’t think for one moment that this means the intelligent design people will fold their tents and go away.”
Supporters of intelligent design and others who had favored the Kansas science standards said they were disappointed in Tuesday’s outcome, but they said they had also won a series of little-noticed victories in other states, including South Carolina. There, supporters said, state officials decided this summer to require students to look at ways that scientists use data “to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory.”
John G. West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a group in the forefront of the intelligent design movement, said any repeal of the science standards would be a disservice to students here, and an effort to censor legitimate scientific challenges to Darwin’s theories. Still, he said, no local political skirmish will ultimately answer the broad issue.
“The debate over Darwin’s theory will be won or lost over the science,” he said.
It is not clear, however, that the Kansas vote necessarily reflected a widespread change in thinking around the state. The overall turnout in Tuesday’s election was 18 percent, the lowest here in at least 14 years, a fact some local political experts attributed to low-key races statewide and painfully steamy weather.
Several groups that favored the teaching of evolution had worked to turn out moderate voters. The groups included the Kansas Alliance for Education, which raised more than $100,000 to campaign against the current majority and the science guidelines, and Kansas Citizens for Science.
If future school board elections turn out a different group of motivated voters, the results could shift again, as they have in previous elections.
Five seats were at stake in Tuesday’s vote, four of them held by the board’s conservative Republican majority. Two conservatives lost to moderates in the Republican primary, ensuring a shift in control on the 10-member state board. Both winners will face Democratic opponents in November, but the Democrats are both considered moderates as well.
“We need to teach good science and bring the discussion back to educational issues, and not continue focusing on hot-button issues,” said Jana Shaver, a teacher and college trustee from Independence.
Ms. Shaver is one of the moderate winners in the Republican primary. She ran far ahead of the conservative candidate, Brad Patzer, who was trying to claim the seat of his mother-in-law, Iris Van Meter, who did not seek re-election.
Reached by telephone on Wednesday, Ms. Van Meter refused to speak to a reporter. “I have nothing to say to you,” she said.
Connie Morris, a former teacher and author who had described evolution as “a nice bedtime story,” also lost in the Republican primary, to Sally Cauble, another teacher.
Ms. Cauble, a local school board member from Liberal, said she favored returning to what she considered a more traditional science curriculum drawn up by a committee of science experts.
The Kansas standards, which were to take effect in classrooms in 2007, do not specifically require or prohibit discussion of intelligent design. They call for students to learn about “the best evidence for modern evolutionary theory, but also to learn about areas where scientists are raising scientific criticisms of the theory.”
The guidelines also say that evolution “has no discernable direction or goal.” Experts say that language goes beyond the general requirement for critical analysis of evolution as adopted by some other states.
Some members of the state school board, who supported the guidelines and were not up for election, seemed frustrated at the prospect that the board would once again revisit the guidelines.
“If the liberals take over in January, which appears likely, then I am going to have very little to say about it,” said Steve E. Abrams, the board chairman.
Kathy Martin, a board member and supporter of the standards, said: “I assume we will go back over that stuff. I don’t see a need for it, but there you have it.”
Kansas has been over this ground before. In 1999, the state made national headlines by stripping its curriculum of nearly any mention of evolution. Two years later, voters removed several conservative board members, and the curriculum change was reversed.
Then, a conservative majority took hold in 2004 and revived the issue, leading to the bitter 6-to-4 vote last year, in which the board adopted the current standards.
Monica Davey reported from Topeka for this article, and Ralph Blumenthal from Houston.